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Until I Find My Destiny

Willa:  Hey Lisha.  This week I was wondering if we could talk a bit about the song “Destiny.” To be honest, it’s perplexed me for a long time. But I recently had an idea that opened up a new way of interpreting it, and I wanted to run it by you to see what you think.

What’s puzzled me about “Destiny” is the way it keeps switching genre. It starts off sounding like a country song, but then it gets funkier in the choruses and toward the end it sounds much more futuristic. You can really hear that around 3:20 minutes in: there’s a passage that sounds like a sonic “lift-off” and then at 3:30 it goes into a brief interlude of what I guess you would call “space music,” kind of like what you hear on the radio show Hearts of Space. I feel sure Michael Jackson was switching genres like this for a reason – to create a shift in mood or convey an idea – but what exactly? I’ve pondered this for a long time.

Lisha: Willa, I’m glad you brought it up because I’ve been perplexed by this song as well. If you were to add Clint Black or Reba McEntire’s twangy Southern vocals to “Destiny,” nothing would be out of place. The intro and the verses of this song would fit into any mainstream country music programming. However, by the first chorus, things start getting really urban and funky, and the rest of the song is consistent with 1970s pop/rock and R&B. And even though I hadn’t noticed it before, you’re right, there is that section after the final vocal improv that ends with some new-agey electronic sounds and feedback, almost like the ambient sonic explorations on the Hearts of Space radio show!

Willa: Yes, it’s a real smorgasbord of genres. There’s pop, rock, and R&B as you say, and even a strong hint of disco.

Lisha: Yes, especially some of the string and electronic sounds suggest disco to me in spots as well.

Willa: So the question I keep asking myself is why? Why would Michael Jackson begin a song with acoustic guitar and a bit of twang in his voice, probably the most “country” of any of his songs – his published songs, anyway – and end with synthesizer and a much more futuristic sound?

“Destiny” happened to come on the car stereo the other day, and as I was listening to it an idea struck me. Michael Jackson and his brothers repeatedly said that their mother loves country and western songs and raised them with that music. For example, in Moonwalk he writes, “My first memories are of her holding me and singing songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Cotton Fields.’” And they’ve also said they started off singing together as a group by singing country songs around the house. I think Marlon and Jackie Jackson talk about that in Spike Lee’s Off the Wall documentary. So I wonder if in some ways “Destiny” charts the Jacksons musical journey, beginning with a country sound but then moving in a new, more futuristic direction?

Lisha: What a fascinating idea, Willa. While the lyrics talk about searching to “find my destiny,” it’s accompanied by music that strongly resembles the Jacksons’ own musical journey. Maybe that’s part of the plan!

Willa: Yes, that’s what I’m wondering. And you’re right, the lyrics themselves suggest the idea of a journey or quest, like when he sings, “I do dream of distant places / Where I don’t know now, but it’s destiny.” And we can interpret that as a physical or spiritual journey, or more specifically as an artistic journey.

Lisha: I really think you are onto something. The songwriting credits include all five brothers who were in the group at that time. It’s reasonable to think they might have wanted to reflect on their own musical heritage and a sense of destiny by creating a song that illustrates their journey musically. Of course, even if that wasn’t their intention, your observation still holds true. It would be hard to deny that the song makes use of the very different musical styles – styles that the family was immersed in and that are generally considered to be worlds apart, both musically and culturally.

Willa: It really does. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song like it – meaning one that begins with country and then shifts so dramatically to other forms.

Lisha: I can’t really think of a similar move either. Mainstream country music has had strong elements of rock for some time, but that is achieved by blurring genres together, rather than just placing them side-by-side as in “Destiny.” In fact, Country Music Television’s Chet Flippo has said: “Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock.” He claims genre distinctions are not as rigid as they used to be, which means genre is not the effective marketing tool it used to be either. Today’s listeners just aren’t as loyal to one style over another, as in the past.

Willa: That’s interesting. I’d need to think about that some more, but I think he might be right. But while “blurring genres together” isn’t uncommon, that isn’t what’s happening in “Destiny,” as you pointed out, Lisha. The intro and verses are distinctly “country” so they really sound like traditional country music, and then he’s “placing them side-by-side,” as you say, with other genres in the choruses.

That’s really unusual, but juxtaposing genres in this way is something Michael Jackson experimented with more than once, as you noted in a brilliant analysis of “Black or White” a few years ago:

[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.

I’m still blown away by this! And by the paper you wrote building on these ideas. I think it’s the most insightful analysis I’ve ever read about the musical structure of “Black or White.” It’s so fascinating how he juxtaposes genres to make a statement about race, and that raises another way to approach “Destiny.” After all, country music is coded “white” just as much as hard rock is – maybe even more so. So maybe he’s subtly saying something about racial divisions in “Destiny” also?

Lisha: Thank you so much for your kindness! And I think you’re right about “Destiny.” What I found so fascinating about “Black or White” is that the lyrical content is supported by running musical commentary as well. “Destiny” strikes me as an early expression of that same idea.

Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too.

Lisha: What is so striking to me about them both is that the rigid boundary between genres is observed, but then that boundary is dealt with by just ignoring it. It’s as if there’s nothing unusual about writing a country song, and then switching to an entirely different genre for the chorus! And even when you listen to the intro to “Destiny” in the context of the album, the country feel is strangely not out of place though I’m not exactly sure why. It doesn’t jar you into thinking, what the heck is going on? It just kind of happens.

It’s the same move in “Black or White,” when the bridge suddenly has eight bars of hard rock/heavy metal, and then it’s followed by eight bars of hip-hop rap. The seamless way the transitions are made, you almost don’t notice it.

Willa: Yes, it fits, even though when you stop to think about it, it’s not clear why. How does he do that? He makes those huge transitions so effortlessly, they seem natural, as if there’s nothing the least bit unusual about jumping genres like this. And I just want to say again that your analysis of race and genre in “Black or White” is so interesting! I’ve thought about it a lot the past couple of years, and it’s just so brilliant what he’s doing there. And I think “Destiny” could be an early experiment in using genre to subtly talk about race, just like he does in “Black or White.”

In the US, genre is divided pretty rigidly along racial lines – for example, country music is labeled as “white,” as if it’s somehow off-limits to black artists and audiences. Michael Jackson alludes to the racial biases surrounding country music in Moonwalk. After saying that his mother liked to sing country songs like “Cotton Fields,” he goes on to say,

Even though she had lived in Indiana for some time, my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church. She likes Willie Nelson to this day.

So he’s using his mother as an example to show that, even though country music tends to be seen as exclusively white, that isn’t really true.

Lisha: You know, the fact that we’re even talking about music in racialized terms demonstrates how strongly music will reflect the society it was created in. What better proof of a divided nation could there be than the fact that American music codes so strongly along black and white racial lines?

Willa: That’s true, Lisha, and it’s a really important point. Musical genre – or how we think about genre – reflects the history of segregation in the US. University of Rochester music professor John Covach offers a series of free online classes through Coursera, and he talked about this in one of his History of Rock classes. He said that Billboard magazine began as a trade journal, and the Billboard charts originated as a way of letting jukebox companies know which records to put in which jukeboxes. The country charts told them which songs were popular with young white rural listeners, so they should put those records in jukeboxes in rural white hangouts. The pop charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in urban and suburban white areas, and the R&B charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in black areas. The assumption was that those audiences had very different tastes and didn’t intermingle much, so the jukeboxes serving those audiences each needed their own separate list.

Since that time Billboard has expanded the R&B chart (the “black” chart) to include hip-hop, and they’ve added some new categories (rock, Latin, electronic dance music) but actually this just reinforces that kind of segregated thinking: that whites want pop, rock, and country; blacks want R&B and hip-hop; and now Latin Americans want Latin music.

Lisha: Yes, segregation was the law of the land when Billboard began compiling data in order to better understand how people buy music. It makes sense that marketing people would be very interested in correlating genre and race. But I think genre is a really tricky subject for many reasons.

Willa: It really is. For example, Billboard compiles separate lists for different genres, but R&B and hip-hop are lumped together into one chart. From what I can tell, R&B and hip-hop have very little in common musically, but they have been grouped together for marketing purposes because they are both seen as black or “race music” as Billboard used to call it. So the assumption is that R&B and hip-hop appeal to the same audience or market share simply because they have both been racialized as black, but that’s a big assumption to make.

Lisha: It is. And musicians, musicologists and marketing departments often use the same terms in very different ways, so it creates a lot of confusion.

Willa: That’s true. “Folk” or “funk” or “punk” or any of those labels don’t necessarily mean the same thing to musicologists and the general public, to marketers and the musicians themselves.

Lisha: Exactly. This reminds me of the time in 1963 when a song called “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs hit #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Because R&B gets used as a marketing term for black music that appeals to black audiences, when you listen to how hilariously white “Sugar Shack” is, it’s hard to believe it once topped the R&B charts! Billboard mysteriously didn’t publish another R&B chart for over a year after this happened, presumably so they could rethink their approach.

I guess my point is that defining genres and demographics is not that straightforward. But we can make some broad generalizations about who consumes what music, and I think that is exactly what “Destiny” is commenting on: musical styles that we recognize as belonging or appealing to different groups.

Willa: Or have been perceived as appealing to different groups, though those perceptions may not be true.

Lisha: Yes, “Destiny” seems to challenge those perceptions.

Willa: I agree. Dave Marsh talks about this in Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, referring specifically to how country music has traditionally – and wrongly – been seen as exclusively “white.” Marsh raises some important issues about this, but unfortunately it’s part of a rant where he chastises Michael Jackson for not knowing much about music history. Seriously.

Lisha: Oh please! All right, go ahead. Let’s hear it.

Willa: Ok, prepare yourself. It’s long, condescending, and incredibly irritating. This is what Marsh says, and keep in mind that he’s writing this directly to Michael Jackson, in an open letter addressed to “Michael”:

To understand how today’s music really developed, you have to know what Berry Gordy learned from writing for Jackie Wilson; what Jackie Wilson learned from Roy Brown and Al Jolson; where what they all learned came from: the heart of American racial conflict. You have to know that just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones built a musical edifice from the foundation established by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard – black and white performers, but mostly black ones – so did Chuck Berry come up with his style by drawing upon the jump blues of Louis Jordan and and the nasal country harmonies of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers’ “Ida Red” and Little Richard draw upon the great gospel shouting of Marion Williams and the Ward Singers and the flamboyant costuming and pianistics of Liberace; and Bob Dylan forge his style from Roy Acuff and Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie. And that Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” was a black man and that Nat Cole had to have spent a lot of time listening to Bing Crosby … and that your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, where his skin color was an excuse and opportunity for humiliation and degradation all the livelong day, nevertheless tuned in “hillbilly” radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was “his” as much as it was “theirs.” That is, because buried somewhere deep in American cultural memory is the story of your own rise and fall from grace told over and over and over again as a continuing multiracial passion play. And without knowing where your music came from – not from magic and dreams alone, as you’ve been known to claim, but from hundreds of years of such interminglings and attempts to separate and segregate them – you will never, ever be able to make sense of what has happened to yourself.

Lisha: Wow. There is so much going on there I hardly know where to start as far as trying to untangle Marsh’s superior attitude and selective amnesia. It’s revealing that he considers, in all seriousness, that there’s a black American anywhere on the planet who has failed to notice “today’s music really developed” from “the heart of American racial conflict.” That’s funny enough without accusing Michael Jackson of it!

Willa: Oh absolutely. I mean, just think of Michael Jackson’s background. He toured on the “chitlin’ circuit” while still in grade school with some of the biggest names of the day: the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the O’Jays, Sam & Dave, and many others. He played the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Apollo in Harlem. He watched wide-eyed from the wings as his heroes James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed on stage. He talked with Etta James in her dressing room, and lived for a time with Diana Ross. He was groomed by Bobby Taylor and Berry Gordy, and sat in the studio obsessively watching Gordy and Stevie Wonder and others mix an album. He danced with the Nicholas Brothers and Jeffrey Daniels and Michael Peters, and danced on Soul Train and at Studio 54. He worked with Gamble & Huff and Quincy Jones, as well as some of the best songwriters, session musicians, sound engineers, vocalists, dancers, and other performers in the business.

I mean, just think about the amazing life he lived, learning about the history of American performing arts from the people who knew it best – and not just as an eyewitness but as a fellow artist. He didn’t just research the history of performance in America; he lived it.

But Marsh never seems to consider that with this incredibly rich artistic background, steeped as it was in the traditions of previous generations (vaudeville, country, soul, R&B), coming of age at Motown (“the Sound of Young America”) and continuing on through pop, funk, and disco, Michael Jackson might know some aspects of music and entertainment history much more fully and more intimately than he (Marsh) does. It’s unbelievably patronizing.

Lisha: Well said, Willa. To challenge Michael Jackson’s knowledge of the racial divide in music or the industry shows what a naive position Marsh is coming from. He manages to overlook just about everything that Michael Jackson brings to the table, which is a pretty massive blind spot.

Willa: Absolutely.

Lisha: Interestingly, Marsh’s book was published in 1985, seven years after Destiny. According to Marsh’s own account, he wrote the book in response to Michael Jackson’s breathtaking success in the 1980s, including his “triumph over apartheid broadcasting.” It’s revealing that Marsh specifically cites Michael Jackson’s breach of the racial divide while setting up his book-length rant.

Willa: Yes, that’s true. He praises a few individual songs on Thriller, especially “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and notes that the album as a whole “crossed over” and appealed to white audiences on a scale that no album ever had before. But then he harshly condemns it precisely because of its crossover appeal, claiming it sells out in a way that harkens back to blackface minstrelsy. Lifting quotes from Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up and applying them to Michael Jackson and Thriller, Marsh writes,

Why did they [white listeners] find Thriller so attractive? I’d say because both you and your album let them see what they expected, a “lazy, pretentious, frivolous, improvident, irresponsible and immature” black “who loved to entertain whites.” Now Michael, I know you aren’t improvident – you have lots of money. Maybe you aren’t lazy when the chips are down, but intellectually you are a sloth. You go ahead and deny meeting the other standards. There’s no way I can.

Lisha: Wow. I’m sorry, but that really crosses the line from harsh critique to a racially motivated personal attack.

Willa: It feels that way to me too. And by equating Michael Jackson with minstrel show stereotypes and condemning him as a black performer “who loved to entertain whites,” Marsh places him – and in fact all successful black “crossover” artists – in an ironic double bind, as if the mere fact of their ability to entrance white audiences is prima facie evidence that they have sold out their race.

Lisha: That’s a brilliant observation, Willa. I get the feeling that what Marsh ultimately wants is for Michael Jackson to stay on his side of the color line. He put an awful lot of energy into writing a book that attempts to put Michael Jackson back in his place. At least that’s what I take from it.

Willa: Yes, I think you’re right, in the sense that Marsh wants him to “be black” and stay black, but it’s more complicated than that. He actually wants Michael Jackson to be a kind of Moses figure who will lead America out of its racist past and bring about racial healing, and he expresses a mournful dismay that he apparently isn’t Moses and isn’t trying to be. As Marsh says,

Chances are, even if you’d wanted to do it, you could not have crossed an army over into the Promised Land with you. But you could have gotten them to wade in the water.

It’s really manipulative what he’s doing. We could do an entire post on Dave Marsh.

Lisha: Great idea! I think we should devote an entire post to Dave Marsh. His book is such an important document for understanding the fierce backlash Michael Jackson had to face.

Willa: It really is. However, as provoking as Marsh is, he does make an important point in that long passage I quoted earlier when he says that “your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, … tuned in ‘hillbilly’ radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was ‘his’ as much as it was “theirs.’” In other words, he’s saying that country music belongs to black audiences just as much as it belongs to whites. That seems to be exactly what Michael Jackson was getting at in Moonwalk when he said, “my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church.”

So maybe one way of interpreting that country-sounding intro to “Destiny” is to see it as reclaiming that heritage.

Lisha: Yes, I think you’re right and that is so important to emphasize. Country music is also called the “white man’s blues” because it too owes a debt to black musicians from the Mississippi Delta. And misconceptions about the origins of rock and roll are abundant, thanks to Elvis Presley and other white artists who covered this music early on. The true architects and pioneers of rock and roll were black musicians coming out of the R&B tradition, like Little Richard for example, who was also influenced by the country music that surrounded him. “Destiny” seems to be questioning why music is still coded black or white at all.

Willa: I agree, and that’s a really interesting way to think about “Destiny,” Lisha. So by placing the genres side by side as he does, maybe he’s emphasizing their similarities and common history.

Lisha: Well at least in theory, it stands to reason that all forms of American music should be a part of our musical heritage as Americans. But as you said earlier, Willa, country music is “somehow off-limits to blacks.” And whites have repeatedly rejected or felt threatened by black music, even while appropriating it as their own.

Record producer Don Was did this amazing project called Rhythm, Country and Blues back in 1994, which addressed the issue of race and genre by focusing on the surprising commonalities between black R&B and white country music. He made some amazing recordings with country and R&B artists working together, and he did it so convincingly that you begin to question how different these genres really are. There is a wonderful documentary film about this project, and I think the segment with Little Richard and country star Tanya Tucker is especially relevant to our discussion. It starts at about 25:00 in:

Wouldn’t “Destiny” be a perfect song to receive the Don Was treatment? It so beautifully illustrates how American music has been racialized and divided, but then really makes you question why that has to be, if you stop long enough to think about it!

Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Lisha! I remember when that album came out, but I’d never seen the documentary before – didn’t even know it existed. I loved listening to all the duets again!

Lisha: I did too! Aren’t they amazing?

Willa: They really are! What a treat to hear Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood sing “I Fall to Pieces” or Clint Black and the Pointer Sisters sing “Chain of Fools” or Gladys Knight and Vince Gill sing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” or Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire sing “Since I Fell for You” or Marty Stuart and the Staple Singers sing “The Weight.”  I’d forgotten how great the music on that album is, and it really shows how the separation between genres – especially between “black” music and “white” music – is “just an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception,” to quote a very wise person. We tend to hear Little Richard and Tanya Turner as very different – as belonging to completely different musical spheres – because we’ve been trained to perceive them that way. But our conditioning fools us. They really aren’t that different. And what a wonderful way of showing that, Lisha.

Lisha: I’m glad you thought so. Willa, do you remember the interview Michael Jackson gave John Pidgeon in 1980, the one where Janet sits in and repeats the questions back to him?

Willa: Oh yes. I love that interview.

Lisha: I do too. I wanted to go back and read that again, because it was done just a couple of years after Destiny was released. Here are some excerpts that I thought were especially interesting in this context:

I hate to say it’s a category – pop, jazz. I don’t like that. It’s music. It’s wonder to the ear and that’s what counts. If you can move a person through music, that’s what makes me feel good. That’s what I enjoy about it…

I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me, and just for me to stay on that track and follow it…

Call it disco, call it anything … it’s music. … That is the ugly thing about man – they categorize too much. They get a little bit too racial about things when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.

And that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race into one, through music, and we’re doing that. If you go to our concerts you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling and they’re dancing. And that to me is accomplishing everything. That’s the biggest reward for me, more than money, is to bring those people together and do that. That’s what makes me feel good. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grownups and the grandparents. All colors. And that’s what’s great. That’s what keeps me going.

So according to Michael Jackson, integrating race through music was his “main goal.” It’s not just a happy accident that his music ends up so effectively addressing the racial divide. It’s by design. His thought process seems to be, What would happen if these musical categories began to drop? Can artists steer the culture by addressing these issues in their work? What better place to do this kind of cultural work than the music industry – an industry that is already set up to deliver artistic product to a mass audience?

Willa: Wow, Lisha. Those are really important questions. So if we approach “Destiny” from this perspective, then the way it juxtaposes different genres could really be seen as a political statement.

Lisha: Yes, I think so. It also strikes me as a deeply spiritual position, too, as you said earlier. Looking again at what Michael Jackson told John Pidgeon, “I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me…”

In this part of the interview, Michael Jackson was specifically talking about having a vision for how he wanted to push music performance and composition forward in very visual and dramatic way. When I thought about this more, the peacock illustration on the back cover of the Destiny album came to mind.

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Michael Jackson said the peacock is “the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.” So the peacock is used as a visual symbol on the album of integrating all colors through music. The peacock is also featured on the back of the Triumph album, and a peacock feather floats upwards towards the sky at the end of the short film Can You Feel It, followed by a display of peacock feathers imposed on an image of the planet.

Willa: Yes, I was just thinking about that! And Can You Feel It really advances the idea of bringing people together through art, as Joie and I talked about in a post a while back. So it seems significant that the image of the peacock would appear in both Destiny and Can You Feel It.

Lisha: It does to me too. It’s a visual symbol that sums up the spiritual values or philosophy of the music.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha, and it just goes to show how “Destiny” begins as a country song but ends up being so much more.

Lisha: Something else I noticed about “Destiny” is how consistent the thematic content is with the genre of country music. I’m even tempted to think of it as a country song that strays into other musical territory, rather than think of it as a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section. The lyrics deal with some very familiar themes in country music such as longing for “the simple life,” a desire to get away from the city, a cautious attitude about excessive materialism, a stubborn but highly-valued sense of individualism. I think this holds true for the entire song, but these lines in particular strike me as typical of the country music genre:

And I’ve tasted the city life and it’s not for me…

If it’s the rich life I don’t want it,
Happiness ain’t always material things…

Give me the simple life…
Let me be me
C’mon, let me feel free…

Nobody can change my mind

Willa: That’s true, Lisha. There’s also the idea of constantly moving on, which is a common feature of country music also. For example, the cowboy, alone on the range, is a very old motif – or more recently, the country singer or the gambler moving from one honky tonk to another, playing a night or two and then traveling on. We see something similar in “Destiny,” such as the urge to “up and fly away so fancy free” or the repeated lines “I’m getting away from here / Let me be free / Let me be me.” In fact, the entire song focuses on a quest that may take him around the world as he searches for his destiny.

You know, it would be really easy to interpret this search for his “destiny” as a longing for success – wealth, accolades, a penthouse in the city – but as you pointed out earlier, Lisha, the lyrics contradict that. In the lyrics you just quoted, he emphasizes that “Happiness ain’t always material things.” So while commercial success may be part of his destiny, that doesn’t seem to be his main goal. He’s talking about something deeper and more spiritual when he refers to finding his destiny.

Lisha: That’s an excellent point. It’s clear that the character in this song is not motivated by success in terms of material gain. His motivation is something much bigger: a desire to fulfill his own destiny. He follows his own moral compass and sense of purpose.

Willa: Yes, and the idea of defining success on your own terms is part of the country music tradition also. Success may be a good paycheck, but more often it’s the satisfaction of living life on your own terms, free from constraints. You don’t need a penthouse to be happy – just a pickup truck and the love of a good woman. I’m oversimplifying of course, but that’s the general idea …

Lisha: I’m not sure you can oversimplify when it comes to satisfaction and pickup trucks in country music!

Willa: That’s funny, Lisha. But you’re right that “Destiny” evokes a lot of themes frequently heard in country music, so maybe the country flavor in the intro was also used to help convey those thematic ideas. In fact, you may be right in looking at it more as “a country song that strays into other musical territory” instead of “a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section.”

Well thank you, Lisha, for another fun conversation! I learn so much every time I talk to you.

Lisha: It’s always great to hear your ideas and talk about Michael Jackson’s work! I loved revisiting this song.

Willa: I did too. I also wanted to let everyone know about a conversation you and your friend, historian Roberta Meek, recently had with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx of the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Here’s a link to the podcast, which is a fascinating look at Michael Jackson and Prince. Joe Vogel recently published an article about Michael Jackson and Prince also, and Raven Woods republished a 2011 post about them on her AllForLoveBlog, with an updated ending. It’s an important topic.

Lisha: Thanks for mentioning the podcast, Willa. We had a wonderful time putting that together. I understand Part 2 of the conversation goes up June 7th, so stay tuned.

Willa: Wonderful! I’m really looking forward to it.

 

 

You Can’t Take My Blues Away

Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been wondering if you ever go through phases where you don’t listen to a certain song for a long time, and then suddenly, you can’t seem to get it out of your head. Like, for example, there are times when I won’t listen to certain things – like Michael’s early, Motown work – for several months. And then all of a sudden one day, no matter what I do I just can’t seem to get “Dancing Machine” or “Looking through the Windows” out of my head. Do you ever do that?

Willa: I do! And sometimes it isn’t even a song I like.

Joie: Oh, I do that too! I hate it when that happens!

Willa: I know. It’s not so bad if it’s a song you love, but sometimes it isn’t. Though if I think about it, sometimes I realize that song is telling me something I need to hear right then.

Joie: Hmm. Now that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Next time that happens I’ll have to think about what the song is trying to tell me.

Willa: It can be fun trying to figure that out – kind of like trying to interpret dreams and see what your subconscious mind is puzzling over, even though you may not realize it. Though I have to say, I’m not very good at it – generally it remains a mystery. Sometimes I can make sense of it, but most times it just seems completely random.

Joie: It certainly does feel random usually. Well, I’m asking because there is a song that I have been singing to myself for about a week or so now, and it’s one that I have not listened to for probably a year, at least. It’s “Blues Away” by the Jacksons.

The song is on their 1976 album titled simply The Jacksons, the first one under their new name and their new label, and it was actually one of the very first songs that Michael wrote himself that was released.

Willa: That’s true. In fact, I think it was the first. He also helped write “Style of Life” on the same album, but that one he wrote with Tito – in fact, Tito is listed first, meaning he’s the principal author. But “Blues Away” credits “Michael Jackson” alone, and it seems to be the first released song he wrote entirely on his own.

Joie: It’s a simple little song, just over three minutes in length, and it’s sort of sweet, but also sort of sad in a way. The chorus of the song says “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.” And I have always been sort of intrigued by this, and I’ve spent considerable time wondering about it. So, I thought maybe we could talk about it and I could get your take on it.

Willa: Sure, that sounds fun. You’re right, it is a fairly simple song – it doesn’t have the depth or complexity of a lot of his later work. Just think about “Billie Jean,” which was released only three years later. “Billie Jean” has so much going on, musically and thematically – though it handles it all so effortlessly it’s easy to overlook just how complicated it is. But even a relatively simple song like “Blues Away” can be a challenge to interpret. Like a lot of his songs, its meaning is subtle and ambiguous. It slips around.

For example, if someone told me this was a courtship song – a song a guy was singing to a girl he wants to go out with – and if they told me the title was “Blues Away,” I would guess that he’s telling the girl he has the blues without her, and if she goes out with him it’ll send his “blues away.” That would be a more typical approach – kind of like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” But that isn’t what he’s saying.

Joie: No, it’s not what he’s saying at all, and actually, I’m not entirely sure that this is meant to be a courtship-type song. Although it does feel that way at times. The first verse opens this way:

I’d like to be yours
Tomorrow
So I’m giving you some time to
Think it over today
But, you can’t take my blues away
No matter what you say, babe

So, at times, it does feel like a courtship song. He’s telling her that he’d like to go out with her and maybe be her boyfriend, but he’s not sure how she feels so he’s giving her some time to think it over. But then in the next breath he tells her that no matter what she decides, it’s not going to take away his blues. He’s still going to be a little bit depressed, even if she says yes.

Willa: Exactly, which isn’t at all what you’d expect, so I can see why you aren’t sure if this is really a courtship song or not. I’m not sure about that either.

I’m going to go way out on a limb here, but I don’t think Michael Jackson was a romantic – at least not in the conventional sense of the word. What I mean is, a lot of romantic songs seem to suggest that if two people really love each other, then that’s all they need to be happy. The rest of the world just sort of fades away into the background, and doesn’t really matter anymore. All they need is each other.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson saw things that way. I don’t think he ever could forget the rest of the world, or even his own troubled feelings about things. It reminds me of something he wrote in Moonwalk in 1988:

My dating and relationships with girls have not had the happy ending I’ve been looking for. Something always seems to get in the way. The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one. Many girls want to know what makes me tick – why I live the way I live or do the things I do – trying to get inside my head. They want to rescue me from loneliness, but they do it in such a way that they give me the impression they want to share my loneliness, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody, because I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world.

That’s such a different way of seeing things. He expresses a profound loneliness – as he says, “I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world” – and just looking at his life story, I can believe it.

Joie: I agree.

Willa: He really was in a unique and terribly isolating position, wasn’t he? And generally, we think the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves you and understands you, but he doesn’t seem to feel that way. Instead, he seems to suggest he has a loneliness so deep and absolute that sharing it can’t make it go away. It would just spread his loneliness to another person, and he “wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

Joie: Willa, that is not only very interesting, but also amazing. I think you may have just put into words what he couldn’t fully express. We, as a society, do tend to believe that the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves and understands you. Or at the very least, someone who simply accepts you as you are.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie – someone who accepts you unconditionally, even if they don’t understand you.

Joie: But Michael didn’t feel that way. He didn’t share that belief with the rest of us. He seemed to be coming from a place much darker and more isolated than most of us could even fathom, I think. A place where his loneliness ran so deep that it permeated his soul. And he lived his life in a way that seems to suggest he feared his loneliness would only corrupt others if he let them get too close.

Willa: It feels that way to me too. But you know, the really odd thing is that, listening to his voice – which always seems to have a touch of sorrow in it, even when he was very young – helps our loneliness go away. That seems cruelly ironic, that his sadness helps us feel better, but it seems to … at least it does for me. He’s helped me through some really difficult times, and I’ve heard others say that too. He’s almost like an empath, taking on our troubles and helping us feel better, and I don’t think it would work the same way if he didn’t have that sorrow in his voice.

Joie: I think you are absolutely right!  His voice does always seem to carry a measure of sorrow in it, and it did feel at times that he could feel our pain. That he already knew all about it because he had seen it or gone through it before himself. And you’re right, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of fans out there who will tell you that listening to his voice helped them through the toughest of trials in their lives. I’m one of those people too, Willa. And I love what you said about him being an empath.

You know, I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and my favorite Star Trek series is The Next Generation with Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. In that series, one of the main characters is a female Starfleet officer named Deanna Troi, and she comes from the planet Betazed, which is a race of telepaths who can hear your thoughts as though you’re speaking out loud. That’s how they communicate among themselves. They only lower themselves to speak when they’re dealing with “off worlders.” Well, Deanna wasn’t a true telepath because her father had been a human Starfleet officer, so while she could easily communicate telepathically with other telepaths, she couldn’t hear your thoughts. But she could feel your every emotion because she was an empath. And her empathic abilities gave her a very unique perspective on the people around her.

Willa: That’s a great description, Joie, and it reminds me of one of the original Star Trek shows. They meet an empath who not only feels the emotional suffering of others, but can also take on their physical suffering and heal it. One of the crew members – Captain Kirk, I think – is fatally wounded somehow, and even though she knows what it means, she takes on his wounds and his suffering, so he’s cured and she dies instead.

That’s an extreme example, but in some hard-to-define way Michael Jackson seems to have had an empathetic connection with people also – at least it feels that way to me – and in his own way was able to take on our suffering and help us feel better.

Joie: At times, it does seem like Michael Jackson must have had some kind of empathic ability somehow. I don’t think there’s ever been another person who just appeared to be so in tune with what others were feeling. And he seemed to have such a burden for the sick and the weak, almost as if he truly could feel their suffering.

Willa: I agree. And even those of us who never met him could listen to his voice and feel an emotional connection that just made you feel better somehow. He also inspires us to help others, as Sylvia Martin explores in an article we recently added to the Reading Room.

You know, thinking about all this in terms of “Blues Away” reminds me of a story from Randy Taraborrelli’s biography. When Michael Jackson was 13 or 14, his brother Tito decided to get married but Michael discouraged him, and his reasons are really interesting. Here’s what Taraborrelli says:

Michael felt strongly that Tito was letting their fans down by marrying, and attempted to convince him to change his mind. “Think about all the girls out there who love us,” he said, trying to reason with his brother one day in the Motown offices.

“They don’t even know us, Mike,” Tito said. “We can’t live our lives for perfect strangers.”

“But they do know us,” Michael argued, according to a witness, “and we owe them, Tito. We owe them.”

To be honest, this puzzled me for a long time. What difference does it make if Tito – or even Michael Jackson himself – gets married or not? It’s not like it would affect his voice, or his skill as a dancer. It shouldn’t affect his performance in any way. So why does he feel he “owes” it to his audience not to get married?

I think it’s because of how we relate to him, and how we project our feelings onto him and feel them reflected back at us. And I also think it’s because of the empathetic connection he felt with his audience. It required total dedication on his part – a willingness to open himself emotionally and commit himself fully and completely to his audience and his art. And he did that. He gave everything, body and soul. And I think he understood that from a young age – understood what was required of him to be who and what he was, to fill the cultural role he filled, and to be what we needed him to be.

Joie: I’ve never thought about it like that before, Willa. That’s really deep, isn’t it? And still so very sad. It’s almost like he willingly gave up his happiness so that he could make us happy instead. Sort of like someone laying down their own life for the life of his friend.

Willa: Oh, it’s terribly sad. You know, I think about his life sometimes, and all the things he went through, and it’s almost unbearable. I wish he could have found that “happy ending I’ve been looking for” that he talks about in Moonwalk. I wish his life could have turned out differently. I wish the 1993 allegations had never happened, or if they did happen that he was cleared somehow, and he could have found contentment and peace. I want it so badly it hurts – it’s like a physical ache – and I think a lot of fans feel that way.

Joie: I think they do too.

Willa: And maybe if he’d been more like Tito and made the same decisions Tito made, his life would have turned out differently. After all, Tito’s a very talented blues guitarist and performer and producer in his own right, as well as a father and grandfather. It is possible to be a musician and still have a happy home life.

But of course, Michael Jackson was so much more than a musician. He was an artist of a very rare caliber, and a transformative cultural figure who radically changed how we see ourselves and each other. And to be honest, knowing how dedicated he was to his art, I can’t really picture him making a decision different than the one he made. He lived his life with courage and passion and a total dedication to his art, and I’m filled with admiration because of that – as well as sadness for the things he gave up.

Joie: And he did give up so much when you think about it. You know, Willa, thinking about what you just said about the fans wanting so badly for circumstances in his life to have turned out differently … I truly agree with that statement. I think probably most of us who call ourselves fans would agree with that. But I have a confession to make. I sometimes think about Michael’s life, and about how dedicated he was to his art and how much he sacrificed to make us happy, and I feel extremely guilty about how things turned out for him. Does that make sense? And I’ve always wondered if others feel guilty or if it’s just me.

But getting back to the song, “Blues Away,” you know, that song was written back in the mid ’70s and I find it interesting to think that he knew even back then that his was going to be a life of sorrow. I mean, that’s basically what that song is saying, I think – that no matter what answer she gives him, no matter what happiness comes, there will always be that undercurrent of sorrow for him.

Willa: I think you’re right, Joie. As he tells her in that line you quoted earlier, “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.”

Until I Find My Destiny

Joie:  Hey Willa, do you ever just look over Michael’s very impressive body of work and think, ‘Wow!’ I do that quite often and I always marvel at the fact that he was in the business for so long. And I like to go back and listen to some of that early work; I think it’s fascinating to listen to the progression from cute little child star with the Jackson Five to adult superstar as the King of Pop. But I have to say that I really enjoy the sort of in-between stage – the work he did with his brothers as The Jacksons.

Michael made six albums with his brothers as The Jacksons. One of them was the incredible Live album (in 1981) and one was the Victory album (in 1984), which doesn’t really count, in my opinion because Michael wasn’t all that involved in the whole project.

Willa:  Oh, but Joie. It has one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs …

Joie:  What song is that?

Willa:  “Always / Please, be not always / And if always / Bow our heads in blame / ‘Cause time has made promises …”  Oh, man! I love that song.

Joie:  Really? That is one song that I can honestly say I don’t love.

But, getting back to the other four albums – The Jacksons (in 1976), Goin’ Places (in 1977), Destiny (in 1978) and Triumph (in 1980) – are what I want to concentrate on. More specifically, I want to zero in on Destiny for a while, if we can.

The Destiny album was very unique because it was the first album they had ever recorded where they were responsible for most of the creative content. They wrote nearly the entire album, with the exception of the song, “Blame It on the Boogie.” It is seen as the album that re-established the brothers as a top-selling group and it became their first certified platinum album. This is significant, I think, because for years they had tried to persuade the powers that be to let them record their own music. In fact, wanting more creative freedom was a major issue  for them and one of the reasons that they left the Motown label when they did.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie. Destiny was a huge album for them creatively. It proved to the record industry, the critics, the public, and most importantly themselves, that they could write and produce their own work. And you can hear it. I don’t know musical genres very well, and I don’t know how to describe what I’m hearing very well, but the Jackson 5 songs sound like Motown to me. I love them, and they’re obviously the Jackson brothers singing, of course, but they have that Motown sound. And then The Jacksons and Goin’ Places have the Philly sound.

But Destiny sounds like the Jacksons. I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, and I’m overstating things to make a point – the transition isn’t as abrupt as I’m making it out to be, and you can still hear a lot of different musical influences in Destiny. But it really sounds to me like they’ve come into their own, in some way.

Joie:  You’re explaining yourself great, Willa. And you’re absolutely right! The Jackson 5 did have that very distinctive Motown sound; it was infused into each and every song they recorded. But when the group left Motown for CBS, they left that “bubble gum pop” sound behind. They had no choice. And really, I don’t think they wanted to hang onto it any longer anyway. They weren’t those chubby-cheeked, adolescent boys anymore, they were growing up. They were all young men by then and they wanted their music to reflect that. However, when I listen to their first two albums with CBS, I sort of get the feeling that the creative team there wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them or which direction they wanted to take them in. You know, it’s almost like the first two albums attempt to straddle the fence between that sweet, bubble gum pop sound and an older, slightly more sophisticated sound.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Joie, but you know, in some ways it feels just the opposite to me. A lot of their songs at Motown seem too old for them. It’s like the Motown management liked the irony of kids singing adult songs, so you have a 10-year-old Michael Jackson singing “Who’s Loving You,” and Jermaine singing “I’m Losing You” (“Ah, woman, your touch has gone cold … I can feel the presence of another man”). And the Motown sound was developed for adult vocalists – groups like The Supremes and The Temptations and The Four Tops. I don’t mean to sound critical – I love the early Jackson 5 at Motown. But as a kid just a couple years younger than Michael Jackson, my favorite songs were the ones that were more age appropriate, where they didn’t sound like kids pretending to be grown-ups – songs like “Ben” and “ABC” and “Rockin’ Robin.”

So one of the things I like about Destiny is that, in some ways, they sound younger to me. Or rather, they sound like who they are – a group of very talented young men having a good time and finding their own sound.

Joie:  Well, you’re right, a lot of the Motown stuff was way too old for them at the time. But to me, it still had that saccharinely sweet, bubble gum quality to it. Whether the songs were age appropriate or not. In fact, sometimes I think the fact that the song isn’t age appropriate only makes it sound sweeter and more schmaltzy because of the play on age (like the spoken intro of the live version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” when Michael exclaims ‘I gave her my cookies!’ – meaning that little exchange was the physical proof of his love, as if he had given her a diamond ring).

And with those first two CBS albums, sometimes it feels as if they are sort of stuck in the middle to me. Take the first album, The Jacksons, for example. With the first three songs on that album, you’ve got “Enjoy Yourself” – a fun, easy dance tune about young people out at a party, and he’s trying to persuade a girl to dance with him. Track three is “Good Times” – a really soft, sweet song about a young man thinking back over a love affair that’s ended. Both of those songs sound very age appropriate, and grown up to me. But sandwiched in between them is “Think Happy” – a song that, to me, sounds as if it could have been left over from some of those Motown recording sessions. It sounds very much like it could have been recorded by those fresh-faced adolescents who burst onto the scene with “ABC” and “I Want You Back.”

It’s like The Jacksons and Goin’ Places are both suffering from a little bit of an identity crisis. But then, once the brothers are allowed the creative freedom that they’ve been craving for so long, they are finally able to come into their own and introduce their own sound to the world. With Destiny, they finally have a distinct, cohesive identity. It’s like the brothers were saying, ‘Ok, let’s show ’em what we can really do.’ At least, that’s how it feels to me.

Willa:  Well, that’s interesting, Joie, because I definitely agree that Destiny is more “their own sound,” but I’m not so sure about the “cohesive identity” part. What I mean is, they didn’t create a distinctive sound by sticking with one formula or one style or even one genre. There’s a lot of experimentation on Destiny.

For example, the title track has a strong country flavor, I think – or at least it starts off country. It’s much funkier by the end. And country music is not what you’d expect from a Jacksons album, though apparently they came by that naturally. They mentioned in several interviews that the first songs they ever sang together were country songs. Their mother liked country music and liked to sing along with it on the radio, and they started joining in. But “Destiny” is one of the few songs where you really hear that influence.

Joie:  I see what you’re saying, Willa, about the use of more than one style and genre – something Michael would continue to do as a solo artist – but I’m not really talking about the “sound.” What I said was that they finally had a distinct, cohesive identity. I’m talking about … the attitude, I guess. Maybe I’m explaining myself really badly but, what I’m getting at is that, with the Destiny album, the brothers finally graduated from a cute little kid act to adult music stars. Gone were the sweet, bubble gum, playing-it-safe songs like “Think Happy,” and “Living Together,” and “Music’s Takin’ Over,” and “Jump for Joy” that populated those first two CBS albums. The “safe,” adolescent stuff was finally replaced by songs with a much funkier edge to them, songs that really made you want to move to the music. Songs that made you think about life and love. Songs that the brothers were incredibly proud of because they had written and produced them themselves. They were adults now and their music was finally reflecting that.

They had been telling everyone at Motown for years that they could do it and begging for just a chance, but no one would listen. And they were promised that chance at CBS, but it was slow in coming. Everyone knew that these boys were immensely talented singers and dancers, but nobody wanted to hand over the reins of writing and producing to them. They were untried in that area and it was a risky prospect. But the brothers kept insisting that they could do it; that they were ready. And they were proven right when Destiny peaked at number eleven on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and number three on the Billboard Black Albums chart. It eventually went on the sell over four million copies worldwide and became their first RIAA certified platinum album. That had to be very rewarding for them.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. And speaking of charts, here’s some interesting trivia – as you mentioned, Joie, the Jackson brothers wrote every song on Destiny except one, “Blame It on the Boogie,” and that song was written by … Michael Jackson. Not Michael Joseph Jackson but Michael George Jackson. He’s listed as Mick Jackson on the credits and that made me curious. Was he a cousin? So I looked into it and found out he’s no relation – he’s British but was born and raised in Germany and still lives there.

And here’s the interesting part: he recorded his own version of “Blame It on the Boogie” before the Jacksons picked it up, but his version had a delayed release for some reason, so both his version and the Jacksons’ version were released in England at basically the same time, and they both did very well. The Jacksons’ version reached #8 on the charts, and his version reached #15. Apparently Britons really liked the idea that there were two “Blame It on the Boogie”s by two different Michael Jacksons on the charts at the same time, so it set off a competition called the “Battle of the Boogie.” Mick Jackson’s son, Sam Peter Jackson, made a documentary about it a few years ago. Here’s a interview where father and son talk about the two releases and the “battle” between them:

And here’s Mick Jackson’s version:

Joie:  Yes, I’ve heard the Mick Jackson version before. Wild to hear the differences between the two, isn’t it? But I wasn’t aware of the ‘Battle of the Boogie’ that ensued because if it. That’s a fun fact. And that’s an interesting clip about the documentary; thanks for sharing them, Willa.

Willa:  It is interesting, isn’t it? And you’re right, it’s interesting to compare the two versions also. I mean, the Mick Jackson version is a well-sung, well-received pop song – it was #15 on the charts, after all. But then I listen to the Jacksons’ version, and wow!  To me, it’s so much more compelling and dramatic. And I think a lot of that drama is simply Michael Jackson’s skill as a vocalist. In fact, I wonder if that’s one of the big differences between Destiny and the earlier albums – simply Michael Jackson’s growth as a vocalist, and the freedom he now had to explore what all he could do and convey with his voice.

I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to those first two albums you wanted to talk about, Joie – The Jacksons and Goin’ Places – and one thing that strikes me is that you don’t hear nearly as many of Michael Jackson’s non-verbal vocalizations that we’ve mentioned a couple of times in the past – his yips and yelps and the high-pitched “woo!” and “whoa!” and “ow!” (I love that high playful “ow!” that he does sometimes.) You also don’t hear his voice changing textures nearly so much, from rough low growls to crystalline falsettos. And those textures and vocalizations add so much to the character and drama of his songs.

Then along comes Destiny, which kicks off with “Blame It on the Boogie,” and the very first thing we hear him sing is “hee-hee-hee-hee,” starting high and falling like water. Those vocalizations are so expressive, and they let us know from the very beginning that this is a very different sound than we’ve heard from them before.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa. And the fact that we don’t really hear all of those non-verbal ticks that we all love so much until the Destiny album is actually very interesting and also very telling, in my opinion. To me, that more than anything else, shows the creative oppression that he and his brothers must have felt before they were given the creative freedom to write and record what they wanted to instead of always having to do things “the established” way. Now that they finally had control of the reins, they felt free to let some of their real personality shine through in their music. And we can really feel that on the Destiny album in each and every song.