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Happy Birthday, Michael: You Made Them Care

Willa:  Hi Joie. So we’re back!  Did you have a good summer?

Joie:  Yeah, it was nice. We didn’t take a real vacation or anything but we did spend a couple of great weekends up at the Lake.

Willa:  Oh, that sounds nice! I know how much you love the lake. I spent a lot of my summer camping and hiking with teenagers and pre-teens, which was a blast, and Joie, I just have to tell you this story. I was in Mesa Verde, which is such an amazing place with these beautiful 700-year-old cliff-dwellings. There’s something very restful and peaceful, and very spiritual about those dwellings.

Anyway, the second day I was driving along the top of a mesa with “Earth Song” playing on the stereo, and it was a gorgeous morning and just seemed so perfect. And then I looked to my left and saw four wild mustangs running along beside us! We went along side by side for quite a while, but gradually they came closer and closer so I slowed down, and one of them ran in front of me, spun around, and then stood there tossing his head up and down. It was magnificent! Later I talked to one of the guides, and he said there are about 150 wild horses in Mesa Verde but they usually stay down in the canyons grazing. But every so often they’ll come up onto the mesa tops. It was so incredible! Now I think about those wild horses every time I hear “Earth Song.”

Joie:  Wow! Oh, I bet that was beautiful, Willa. So, how loud was your car stereo? Maybe they could hear “Earth Song” and they liked it!

Willa:  I don’t know if they heard it, but someone did. I had three kids with me – a 16-year-old up front and a 14-year-old and 12-year-old in back. The 14- and 12-year-old were pretty excited, but the 16-year-old stayed expressionless the entire time – he seems to be going through a “cool” phase. But the next day, he came up to me and asked, “What was that song you were playing yesterday? The one that goes like this …” and then he sang the long “ah, ah, ah” section of “Earth Song” note for note – you know, the part in the video where everyone is digging their hands into the earth. I was blown away. So even though he didn’t show much emotion at the time, I think he got it. Something happened, anyway.

So today would have been Michael Jackson’s 54th birthday and I was trying to think of a meaningful way to commemorate that. So I started wondering what Michael Jackson himself would do to remember the birthday of a person he admired, and that reminded me of the song he wrote and performed for Sammy Davis, Jr., for his 60th birthday:

He only performed it that one time and it rarely gets mentioned, but it’s so moving. The lyrics are really powerful, and the look on Sammy Davis’ face as watches Michael Jackson sing those words … You can tell how much it means to him.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa; from the look on his face, you can tell he is just so moved by Michael’s words. And really, when you listen to it, it’s not difficult to understand why. It is a very emotional and personal message Michael is conveying in this song. And you can really feel his depth of emotion as he’s performing this special song for one of his idols. Those words he’s singing obviously mean a lot to him. It’s quite moving.

Willa:  It really is, and it’s also a very stylized performance, if that makes sense – it almost seems like a performance from another era. It’s like he isn’t just paying tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., through his lyrics, but through these very stylized gestures as well. He also incorporates iconic poses that are distinctively his own, but they seems perfectly in sync with what’s gone before, so it’s like he’s demonstrating through his performance how his movements fit within this tradition of dance and gesture that’s gone before him.

Joie:  Oh, I agree with you; I think a lot of his movements during this performance are very reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr. and the way he moved. So, you’re right, it’s like he’s paying tribute through the song itself, but also through his movements.

You know, Willa, I haven’t listened to this song in a while but, do you know what strikes me as I watch that clip now? I can’t help but think about all the young artists out there now who are suddenly looking to Michael and citing him as one of their greatest influences. Artists like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown and others. They all look to Michael as one of their heroes just like Michael looked to Sammy Davis and James Brown and Jackie Wilson.

Willa:  I see what you mean, Joie. The tradition is continuing on in a powerful way through this new generation of artists, and Michael Jackson played a very important part in furthering that tradition – he carried the baton a long way! But I also think there’s something very special that Sammy Davis, Jr., and Michael Jackson share in common, and that’s how they both broke through racial barriers – and paid a big price for doing that. As Michael Jackson sings so movingly,

You were there, before we came
You took the hurt, you took the shame
They built the walls to block your way
You beat them down, you won the day
It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair
You taught them all, you made them care
Yes, you were there, and thanks to you,
There’s now a door we all walk through
And we are here, for all to see
To be the best that we can be
Yes, I am here
‘Cause you were there  

I think he’s singing pretty explicitly about the racism Sammy Davis, Jr., confronted. “It wasn’t right” and “it wasn’t fair,” as Michael Jackson sings, but he endured it. “You took the hurt, you took the shame.” And because of that, “thanks to you / There’s now a door we all walk through.” I think that “we” he’s talking about in these lines is specifically black artists whose lives and careers were a little bit easier because Sammy Davis, Jr., broke ground for them.

Joie:  Yes, I agree with you totally. And I also believe that there are many Black artists out there now who feel the exact same way about Michael Jackson. After all, if it hadn’t been for him and the racial barrier he knocked down at MTV, for example, there would be hundreds of other Black artists who may have never had their videos included in rotation on that station. Likewise, if it hadn’t been for Michael’s amazing cross-over success with the Thriller album, there could be hundreds of Black artists today who may never have tasted similar success.

Willa:  I think that’s really true and really important, Joie, and I hope they’re able to draw strength from Michael Jackson’s life and career the way he seemed to draw strength from the stories of those who went before him. You know, when things were so bad for him after the molestation allegations came out and during the battles with Sony and the 2005 trial, he cited the struggles of those who’d gone before him, and seemed to gain comfort and strength from those stories.

And that makes me think about the title of this song. You know, last spring we talked about “Will You Be There,” and Kris, Eleanor, and Nina had a very interesting and very moving conversation in the comments section about the special symbolic connection between “I’ll Be There” and “Will You Be There.” As Kris wrote,

we have this child who starts out touching us with the purest, most angelic voice, telling us “I’ll Be There,” “just call my name, I’ll be there to comfort you,” etc. And he grows into this man who finds himself really honestly asking “will you be there for me,” and so sadly, it often seemed the answer was no. The two sides of that coin and the truth they tell about his life are very poignant for me.

I know what Kris means – it’s very poignant for me too. But I’ve been thinking lately that maybe there’s a third song in this series:  “You Were There.”

I’ve been thinking lately that there was a small group who was always there to encourage him and give him strength and courage when he needed it, and it included people like Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jack Johnson, Mohammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, and Nelson Mandela – in other words, the black artists and fighters and political figures who had gone before him, who had walked that path before him, and experienced the same kinds of prejudice and persecution and ridicule he faced. Looking at that list, it’s pretty shocking how many were either imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment through no fault of their own – they were simply too powerful to be endured – and I think Michael Jackson drew strength from that knowledge.

Joie:  Hmm. That’s an interesting thought, Willa. The idea that this song forms a sort of trilogy with the other two songs Kris, Eleanor, and Nina were discussing. In fact, I’d be really interested to hear their thoughts on your assessment – so ladies, if you’re reading, please weigh in.

You know, Willa, I think the best part about this song is that it’s just so sincere and heartfelt. It really is just a sweet little song, don’t you think? I mean, it was never recorded and never offered for sale or download as far as I know. Michael only performed it that one time that I know of and yet, I think most fans – even a lot of the new fans – have been aware of it for quite some time. I believe that’s because it’s always been sort of a “fan favorite” and so it’s been passed around from fan to fan. Sort of like when news of something really great spreads via word-of-mouth rather than by conventional promotion. I think that says a lot for this sweet little song.

Willa:  I agree, it’s beautiful, though I think it’s a pretty pointed critique of racism – which is surprising in such “a sweet little song,” as you say. As with so much of his work, we can interpret it and respond to it on many different levels.

Joie:  That’s very true and it is a “pretty pointed critique of racism” – as you say. But it’s also just really sweet and sincere as he sings a love song of appreciation and thanks to one of his idols. Either way you look at it, it is a very powerful, unassuming little song.

Willa:  And a wonderful birthday present to one of his idols.

So you know, Joie, this is Michael Jackson’s birthday, but it’s kind of ours too – our first post was in August of last year. And Joie, I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our chats. You are so fun to work with, and so knowledgeable about everything MJ! I’m constantly amazed by how much information you have at your fingertips, and all the history you have in your head.

Joie:  That’s funny, Willa. Maybe that’s why my head feels so crowded all the time; it’s all the MJ stats floating around up there! But seriously, I’ve enjoyed our conversations too. I have learned so much from talking with you. It’s been a very interesting year.

Willa:  It really has been. So happy first birthday, Joie! And thank you so much for making this such a wonderful experience.

Joie:  Happy Anniversary, Willa!

Hold Me, Like the River Jordan

Willa:  Joie, you know how you get a song in your head sometimes, and it just keeps running through your mind?

Joie:  Yes. That can really drive you crazy! Especially if it’s a song that you don’t particularly care for.

Willa:  Right, like an advertising jingle. The old Oscar Mayer jingle does that to me sometimes, and I’ll go around for days thinking, “Oscar Mayer has a way with B – O – L – O – G – N – A.” And sometimes it’s just because there’s a catchy melody that grabs me. But sometimes, if I think about it, I realize there’s a reason why that particular song has caught hold of me. Like I went around singing the Schoolhouse Rock song about the Preamble to the Constitution pretty much all winter, and then realized my son was studying the Constitution in school.

Joie:  That’s funny! It is amazing how the mind works sometimes.

Willa:  It is funny, isn’t it? Anyway, that’s been happening to me for a couple of weeks now with “Will You Be There.” It’s always been one of my favorites, but something about it just seems to be speaking to me right now because it keeps running through my mind. Though I have to say, if you’re going to have a song stuck in your head, that’s an awfully nice one to have!

Joie:  Can’t argue there; what a great song! That one wouldn’t drive you nuts at all.

Willa:  Oh, it’s lovely, from those first beautiful notes to the opening lyrics to the swelling orchestration. And then the choir joins in, with his voice weaving around overhead – I just love it. It reminds me of walking by a river and watching a swallow swoop around just above the water, catching insects. The choir is the river with their big, full, flowing sound, and Jackson’s voice is the swallow dipping and diving just above it.

Joie:  Hmm. You paint a nice picture. And I agree; it is a beautiful song. And I just love the opening of the full version of the song, with the Beethoven prelude. Beautiful! You know, I don’t think many people realize that piece of music is taken from Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy.”

Willa:  Oh, so you’re talking about the version from the Dangerous album, right?

Joie:  Yes.

Willa:  I was thinking about the videos – the MTV 10th Anniversary one and the Free Willy one – and they don’t have the prelude. And it’s so interesting you should mention it, Joie, because I was thinking about the intro also, but in a really different way. I was focusing on the opening line of the lyrics – “Hold me, like the River Jordan” – and how much it sounds like an old slave spiritual. It even has the rhythm of a spiritual. You know how “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” begins with two long slow notes followed by a long pause, and then picks up the pace with quicker notes after the pause? Well that’s exactly how “Will You Be There” begins. So even though it’s a modern song, it’s like it has older music echoing through it, and you can really imagine those opening lyrics being sung 200 years ago.

But now that you’ve mentioned the prelude, it’s spun me off into a totally different place. You know, if you think about it, it’s really fascinating what he’s doing in that intro on the Dangerous version. We should talk to Lisha about it sometime and get some professional insight, but it begins with a musical quotation from Beethoven, as you say, so it evokes the classical genre. But then we hear the first line of the lyrics, and both the language and rhythm of those lyrics evoke a spiritual. That seems like such a contrast but somehow it works, and it works beautifully. Who else but Michael Jackson could pull off a juxtaposition like that and have it feel so right? It sounds like such a contradiction putting together those two widely divergent genres – you kinda think there’d be a jolt going from one to the other – but in his hands it feels perfectly natural, and precisely right.

Joie:  Willa, it’s so interesting that you say that because, in the classical Beethoven piece is a chorus singing lyrics in German. The English translation of those lyrics reads:

Do you bow down, millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!
Beyond the stars must He dwell.

So the lyrics of this portion of “Ode to Joy” read very much like a hymn, or an old slave spiritual, as you said.

Willa:  Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? To me, the music of that choral part has a very different feeling – it doesn’t feel like a slave spiritual to me at all – but the lyrics really do read like a hymn, don’t they?

Joie:  Yes, they really do. So, while on the surface they may seem like two very different and contradictory directions, they are actually not so far apart when you dig a little bit deeper. And you’re right; who else but Michael Jackson could pull off a juxtaposition like that and make it feel so natural and authentic? In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel says of the song,

The nearly eight-minute piece is essentially an epic film score, rooted in black gospel but fused with classical music and rhythm and blues. It is yet another example of Jackson’s remarkable ability to draw from disparate musical styles and make them work together.  

This ability to ‘draw from disparate styles’ and bring differences together is the heart of his genius, in my opinion. He did it not only with music, as we’ve talked about before, but he did it with people as well. Bringing together all colors, all nationalities, and all generations.

Joe goes on to note in his book how much intros meant to Michael by quoting one of his long-time collaborators, Brad Buxer. Joe writes,

‘He was brilliant with that stuff,’ says Brad Buxer, ‘Intros and outros were really important to him. The intros were almost as important as the song itself.’

So, this beautiful intro with the angelic strains of the Cleveland Orchestral Chorus singing the very hymn-like words over Beethoven’s incredible 9th symphony wasn’t chosen randomly. I believe Michael probably knew very well what the English translation of that piece of music was and used it deliberately because, as Brad Buxer pointed out, to Michael, “the intros were almost as important as the song itself.”

Willa:  That’s fascinating, Joie, and we can really see it in “Will You Be There.” And you know, what you’ve just shared about the hymn-like qualities of that Beethoven section has me thinking about the divide between “high” art and popular art that we’ve talked about before, and that Nina mentioned in the comments last week. It’s like he begins by evoking a hymn from two very different sources – the high art of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the folk art of a slave spiritual – but then brings them together to form this beautiful song.

So I think you have it exactly right, Joie, when you say his ability to “bring differences together is the heart of his genius.” We saw that in “Black or White,” as Lisha explicated so amazingly when we talked to her a couple months ago, and we see it again here. And as you said so well, Joie, this ability to cross boundaries extends from musical genres to demographics: “Bringing together all colors, all nationalities, and all generations.”

I think this insistence on crossing those boundaries was partly a deliberate artistic decision, as we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, but I also think it was just the way his mind worked. He really didn’t see the divisions that break the world, and us, into little separate categories – or he saw them but refused to acknowledge them. He refused to respect the boundaries between rock and rap, classical music and spirituals, just as he refused to respect the boundaries between black and white, masculine and feminine, young and old, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist.

Joie:  I agree with you completely, Willa. I think that’s just the way his mind worked. I think he saw all those boundaries you mention and just completely, and very deliberately, chose to ignore them because they don’t matter anyway. And I think the lyrics to the song itself bear witness to that. To me, this song is all about friendship and brotherly love and being there for one another. And the differences between us just don’t matter. As he sings,

Hold me
Like the River Jordan
And I will then say to thee
You are my friend
Carry me
Like you are my brother
Love me like a mother
Will you be there?

Willa:  Oh, I love those verses! I think the first two lines, especially, are among his best, and I agree these verses can be interpreted as talking about brotherly love and being there for one another, as you say. But there are other interpretations as well, and it gets back to a question I find myself asking every time I listen to “Will You Be There”:  who is he talking to in this song?

For example, could he be praying to a higher power and asking a spiritual question when he sings “Will you be there?” To me, the first two lines, especially, and that word “Thee” kind of suggest that. But then he goes on to sing, “You are my friend,” and that doesn’t feel like a prayer. That feels different, like he’s talking to humanity and encouraging us all to take care of one another, as you mentioned. But then comes the following verse:

When weary
Tell me, will you hold me?
When wrong, will you scold me?
When lost, will you find me?

And that sounds like a prayer again. Even the cadence of those lines sounds Biblical to me.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; they do sound Biblical. And going back to what you just said about it sounding like a prayer except for the line, “You are my friend” … you know, many Christian religions draw on the philosophy that God – or Jesus, more specifically – is our friend, and that we should approach Him in prayer in that way. As if we are talking to a close friend. So that interpretation of this song is completely valid and supported by the lyrics.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. So maybe that isn’t a contradiction. And then as the lyrics continue, they become very personal, I think:

Everyone’s taking control of me
Seems that the world’s
Got a role for me
I’m so confused
Will you show to me
You’ll be there for me
And care enough to bear me?

And that verse sounds like he’s talking very specifically about himself – not humanity as a whole. But again, who is he speaking to? Is he talking to his fans, and asking us if we’ll be there for him through the hard times? (“Will you show to me / You’ll be there for me / And care enough to bear me?”) Or is this a prayer for spiritual guidance? (“Seems that the world’s / Got a role for me / I’m so confused”)

Joie:  Again, I think you’re right here, Willa. It does sound extremely personal. And strangely foreboding, given the legal troubles he found himself in soon after the song’s release as a single in 1993. He could very well have been talking to the fans, asking us if we would stand beside him or even carry him when things became too much for him to bear. It certainly feels that way when you listen to the song.

But by that same token, he could also have just as easily been talking to God and asking for divine guidance and intervention. And, you know, the video for this song and the footage of it performed in concert would seem to support this as both end with an angel, suspended above the stage seeming to fly through the air as she makes her way to him. And as the song ends she lands behind him, gracefully steps towards him and lovingly envelops him in her wings.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point, Joie, and looking at things that way, it seems significant that he included the angel in the MTV concert, which was his first live performance of this song, I think, in 1991. So it’s like it was part of his original vision for this song. And I have to say, I love everything about his MTV performance, from his quiet peace sign to the crowd at the beginning, to the “Women’s Rights Now” slogan spray-painted in a swirl of color on the roof of the car, to the children’s choir and women’s choir and men’s choir, to his lower voice in the opening lines, to his higher voice as it begins to soar, to the fluidity of his elegant dancing throughout and the choreography of all the dancers, to the protective angel at the end holding him and symbolically keeping him safe. I love it all.

And you know, when I ask myself, Who is he talking to?, I see different answers coming forward at different points in the song and find myself answering, All of the above. I think this song is a spiritual quest and a plea to humanity for brotherly love and an honest question to his fans about whether we’ll be there for him through the hard times.

Joie:  I think I agree with you, Willa. The answer is ‘All of the above.’ At least, it certainly feels that way. And I can’t help but wonder if that was his intention all along for this amazingly beautiful song.