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The Groove of Your Walk, Your Talk

Willa:  This week Joie and I wanted to talk about the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, meaning the rhythmic and sound qualities of his words as well as their meaning, but we thought we needed a little professional help. Fortunately, we have an expert among us!

Bjørn Bojesen is a regular participant in the conversations here at the blogsite and the author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim, which is currently in publication and will be available later this year. (For those of us who don’t speak Danish, I’m told that translates as A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming.) Bjørn has an M.A. degree in Scandinavian studies with a focus on Nordic languages and literature, and he wrote his master’s thesis on rhyming – in fact, his master’s thesis was the basis of his book. And he helped straighten out a complicated question in the comments a few weeks ago, which was very appreciated by many of us.

Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us after all, but thank you so much for joining me, Bjørn!

Bjørn:  Thanks for inviting me to this discussion, Willa!  It’s quite an honour.

Willa:  Oh Bjørn, I am so excited and grateful to have you here! I’ve been fascinated by the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics for a long time, and I’m so eager to hear your thoughts. So how did you first become interested in rhyming?

Bjørn:  Well, I’ve always had this interest in words and images. As a teenager I wrote a lot of poems, and spent hours trying to make great rhymes. During my final years at the university, I tried to find a publisher for some of my poems. When that failed, I started to think about my use of rhymes. Most modern poetry I found in bookstores had no rhymes at all. But whenever I turned on the radio, all the rappers and pop singers were rhyming, including Michael Jackson… Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music? I shared my thoughts with a friend, and she agreed it would be an interesting subject for my upcoming thesis.

Willa:  That’s true, Bjørn. I hadn’t thought about those two shifts together before but you’re right – rhyming and other word play are very important elements of rap, while modern poetry almost seems to be in revolt against rhyming, or at least against regular rhyme schemes, as if they’re too constraining. And that’s interesting that you phrase that as a migration:  “Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music?” It’s intriguing to think about it that way.

So this use of rhyming in music is one of the things I’d like to talk with you about. When Joie and I first started bouncing around the idea for this post, I immediately thought of a comment you posted last spring about “The Way You Make Me Feel”:

Things like the first line of TWYMMF are rhythmically and sonically brilliant:  Hey pretty baby with the high heels on…’

Here ‘hey’ rhymes with the ‘ba-‘ of ‘baby’; while ‘pretty’ and ‘baby’ sort of half-rhyme with the -y ending, which is also reflected in the i of ‘with.’ Hey,’ high’ and ‘heels’ alliterate (start with the same sound), giving the song’s opening a breathy, urgent feel. ‘High’ is like the dark echo of hey.’

I love how you focus on the sound qualities of that first line, especially since I’ve always been struck by the wonderful cadence of that line – the rocking horse rhythm of the three trochees followed by the three strong beats at the end. I don’t quite know how to express that cadence in print, but it’s kind of like this: DUM DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM DUM DUM. So I was wondering if we could start by talking about this line a little more.

Bjørn:  What’s great about this line is the way the sounds contribute to the forward movement of the song. One of the prime functions of rhymes is to create suspense and relief. Let me briefly jump to another song – “She’s Out of My Life.” Had Jackson stopped singing right after “and it cuts like a knife,” it would indeed have cut like one! But fortunately he goes on to “she’s out of my life,” and we as listeners are appeased – not just because of the completion of meaning, but also because of the sonic relief provided by the rhyme knife : life. Please note the way I write rhymes with a colon, it’s a custom I’ve borrowed from German literature.

Willa:  Oh, I like that. I’ll try to use that format too.

Bjørn:  So – we’re expecting a rhyme, and after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded! Now, this is the game of traditional written poetry, and of ballads written in that vein.

Willa:  In analyzing English poetry, we call that “closure” – that feeling of resolution after a period of suspense – and it’s amazing how powerful it is. When the syntax and the meter and the meaning and the rhyme all come together and coincide in a perfect conclusion, it gives a very strong sense of closure, and it just feels right to us as listeners.

A lot of modern poetry actively denies closure and thwarts that feeling of well-being it provides. And then there are poets like Emily Dickinson, for example, who like to play with it. She’ll suggest a rhyme scheme and then throw in some slant rhymes so everything just feels a little bit off somehow. It’s surprising how unsettling that can be, and how reassuring it feels when, as you said, Bjørn, “after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded” with a perfect rhyme and a sense of closure. It’s interesting to think about Michael Jackson’s lyrics in terms of using rhyme to set up expectations, and hold them in suspense, and then resolve them.

Bjørn:  Yes, I agree with that! You know, the great thing about song lyrics is that they’re not something you read in a book. A song is an organic whole, and rhymes and rhyme-like figures may pop up anywhere. You’re not confined to the visual endings of lines or the blank spaces between words. When we as listeners pick “The Way You Make Me Feel” and push the Play button, we’re not expecting “poetry” in the literary sense. But then Jackson literally assaults us with a string of rhymes – on top of “rocking horse rhythms” and “strong beats,” as you so fittingly describe it, Willa! Because of the intensity of his deliverance, a lot of seemingly random sonic similarities take on the function of rhymes: You’ve got the H- H- H- rhyme (which is an alliteration, just like in Old English poetry), you’ve got the assonance or “syllable rhyme” hey : ba– in “Hey … baby” … Depending on the scrutiny of your analysis, you could even say there’s an internal rhyme in “pretty” (pree : tee).

The point is, this patchwork of sounds echoing one another creates a lot of tension and drive! The very first word, “hey,” is echoed both in “baby” and “high” (and “heels”). Furthermore, as I indicated in that comment, “high” is the dark twin of “hey.” Up to that point, we’ve been tripping on light vowels: ey – e – e – ey – e – e – (eh). “High” is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics….

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn! Especially how you say that it creates tension and drive – I hadn’t thought about it that way before. And it’s interesting to then look at the end rhymes of that first verse also. Here’s the first couplet:

Hey pretty baby with the high heels on
You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known

The end words have a slant rhyme (on : known) – a not-quite-right rhyme – and we as listeners feel that at some level of consciousness, and feel that something isn’t quite right. But as the verse progresses, we’re given the satisfying feeling of true rhymes:

You’re just a product of loveliness
I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress
I feel your fever from miles aroun’
I’ll pick you up in my car and we’ll paint the town

The slight unease of the slant rhyme on : known gives way to the comfort of -ness : dress and aroun’ : town. And that parallels the increasing joy he feels at getting to know this young woman – or the excitement and anticipation of getting to know her.

Bjørn: I really like what you say about the end rhymes of that strophe, Willa! After that perfect first line, on : known is a bit jarring! It’s like a sonic illustration of that “fever” he’s singing about. As he also points out in “You Rock My World,” longing and desire often bring with them a mixed sense of “happiness and pain.”

Willa:  Exactly! Getting to know someone new is exciting, but it can be unsettling as well – just like that slightly off rhyme. But then he becomes more comfortable with the idea, and that’s paralleled by the comfort of the true rhymes in those later lines.

But if we go back and look at how the first line leads into the rest of the song, I’m curious what you meant, Bjørn, when you said, “’High’ is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics.” I see a rising sense of joy and well-being, but perhaps you see something else happening with those “darker vowels”?

Bjørn:  I definitely do! But I must warn you: When analyzing sounds it’s all too easy to get carried away! In poetry, and by extension song lyrics, a lot of beautiful or interesting patterns appear out of pure coincidence or intuition. I don’t think Michael Jackson ever thought “let’s go for darker vowels here.” But he had a great feeling for words, and the word “high” certainly works on a sonic as well as a narrative level.

I think most people would agree “Hey pretty baby” sounds pretty trivial. What do you mean by calling someone “baby”? You could say it out of pure love and affection, as it is often done. However, I also think it contains an element of belittling the other person, especially if that person is an adult. That’s where Jackson gives his “pretty baby” high heels on. In that very instant the power balance is turned upside-down! She goes from “pretty baby” to a powerful woman who looms large above him on her high heels and gives him fever! And that change coincides with the light e sounds giving way to the dark sound of “high.” I almost hear her stamping her right heel angrily at that beat! Just one tiny detail in the large tapestry of the song, but it’s a brilliant detail.

There’s some similar juggling going on in “You’re just a product …” – hey, what kind of sexism is that!  But then comes “of loveliness,” and we as listeners go straight from degrading consumerism to divinity. (And from muddy o and u sounds to the clear ee of “loveliness.”)

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Bjørn, and I love the way you highlight the sound of the lyrics and how those sounds reinforce the meaning and emotional impact of his words – though I agree it’s possible to get “carried away,” as you say. Joie and I have talked about that a number of times – about the problem of artist’s intent, and how most of the time we can’t know how deliberate an artist was when creating a work. Was it a conscious decision, or was it an intuitive sense of what worked best?  And does it matter whether it was created consciously or not?  The result is the same either way….

So I was hoping we could apply this approach to other songs as well. For example, Joie and I talked about “Tabloid Junkie” a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the sound of the words in the first verse:

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

The dominant sound in this verse is the repeated -ate at the end of speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate, and especially hate. To me, “hate” is the controlling word – it’s in a very prominent position at the end of the first line – and it just feels to me like this verse echoes with “hate,” in both sound and meaning.

Bjørn:  “Tabloid Junkie” certainly is an interesting song. It’s like a gold mine of rhymes! In the verse you mention, Michael Jackson is singing in a way that is very close to rapping. There is hardly any melody, and the beat is almost unbearably tense…. The rhymes contribute to that feeling. They follow each other so fast that there isn’t much room left to feel the sense of relief that rhymes usually provide. Instead, they evoke a feeling of claustrophobia. It’s like being stuck in an echo chamber.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! You’re right, that’s exactly how those lines feel to me – “almost unbearably tense” and claustrophobic, as you say, and the echoing rhymes are coming fast and furious, aren’t they?  But I’d never thought about what it was exactly that made those lines so unsettling. Interesting.

Bjørn:  In a book there can be several lines of text between the two halves of an end rhyme. In music, there are so many sounds that compete for our attention… Especially in rhythmic music, the rhymes have to be more immediate. Furthermore, since there are really no lines in music, only beats and breaks, rhymes between syllables are often more important than rhymes between whole words. An assonance like night : strike would ruin one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it works just fine in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Because the important thing in the makeup of that song is the rhyme ni- : stri-.

What I want to say with all this is that Jackson understood the nature of song rhyming. He had a rapper’s ear for finding echoing syllables, and he loved cramming his lines with as many rhymes as he could. (Just think about “You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known” in the song we discussed above.) So, to your list of “hate” rhymes I’d even add the brea– of “break.” And I agree that they all somehow highlight the word “hate.” All the other words you mention are “advanced” words borrowed from Latin. “Hate” is a basic English word, and a basic notion. In the fourth line the word is even echoed by the alliteration hounding : hysteria – but now I might be stretching this too far!

Willa:  I don’t think so – I feel the alliteration of hounding : hysteria pretty strongly, and I think it does reinforce the echoing sound of “hate” in that first verse.

So I’m intrigued that you see a difference between how rhyme functions in rap and in traditional poetry. Is that primarily because, with rap, we’re usually hearing it and with traditional poetry we’re often reading it? Or is it because we approach rap as music and approach poetry as literature? Or is there some other reason?

Bjørn: The difference lies in the way the art is created. Rhyming as a device has oral origins. Many places in Africa, there are still groups of people that sing together with a “song leader” starting off and the rest of the chorus replying. This way of singing is called “call and response,” and that’s probably the origin of the end rhyme. The response is immediate, there’s no time to ponder. All the cross-rhyming schemes of poetry – from sonnets to limericks – are the result of a poet sitting in front of a piece of paper with time enough to “think twice,” to use a quote from “Billie Jean”! The composition of “paper poetry” is very often a kind of intellectual play: “Hmm, maybe I should make the 3rd line rhyme with the 7th…” Rapping – especially when improvised, as in rap battles – reaches back to the roots. It does not try to follow a preconceived scheme – instead, it’s like a celebration of words that just happen to sound similar.

Of course, as you say, we also judge it differently because it’s boxed as “music.” However, reading and (music) listening are indeed different experiences. When you read, you’ve got just the sounds of the words in front of you. You’ve got the time to wait for a rhyme that appears several lines later. In a song, the trombone, the flute, the drum solo are going to divert your attention long before that… Because of all these other sounds, rhymes in songs also don’t have to be “pure” in the same way as in written poetry (where all your focus is on the words). Just listen to the rap song “Let’s Get Retarded,” composed by Jackson’s friend, of the Black Eyed Peas. Notice how closely the rhymes follow each other, and how “slant” they look when you capture them in writing:

In this context, there’s no disrespect
So when I bust my rhyme
You break yo necks
We got 5 minutes for this to disconnect
From all intellect and let the rhythm effect

Willa: Those lyrics are fascinating, aren’t they? They actually seem to be describing the difference between composing poetry and composing lyrics, just as you described it, Bjørn. Composing a poem with a regular rhyme scheme is an act of writing words on paper, unless we go back to its ancient roots in the oral tradition, and it tends to be an intellectual exercise, while composing rap lyrics seems to be more like music improvisation – as says, “when I bust my rhyme” he wants “to disconnect / From all intellect and let the rhythm effect.”

But I wonder if Michael Jackson somehow occupies a middle ground? He was very aware of the sound of words and generally composed his songs orally, with a tape recorder. But he was also a meticulous craftsman who wrote and revised his lyrics on paper. There are many examples of this. So he seems to have composed his lyrics with the double consciousness of a poet and a musician.

Bjørn: Yes, I agree with that! Jackson had both dimensions in mind. You see that in “Little Susie.” As was pointed out on this blog in February, Jackson took a cross-rhyming Thomas Cook verse and rewrote it as a verse rhyming in couplets (which works better with the melody). He was also aware that a melody can overrule the word accents of the spoken language. So, in the song “Free” from the Bad 25 bonus tracks, he feels indeed “Free, free like the wind blow/To fly away just like the sparrow” – and to rhyme in a way that would not have worked very well without the melody.

In “Tabloid Junkie” I think Michael Jackson made an interesting experiment which somehow bridges the gap between “improvisational rap” and “schemed poetry.” I’m thinking about the lines “They say he’s homosexual” and “She’s blonde and she’s bisexual.” They form a kind of “super-rhyme” that ties the whole song together, leading up to the final “You’re so damn disrespectable.” After so many interruptions, so many verses and musical sounds, it still works as a very strong rhyme. That says something about Jackson’s power – both as a singer and a lyricist.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  You’re right, those three lines are very powerful and sonically linked, especially since he abruptly stops the music and other background sounds during them, so it’s like they’re spoken to a suddenly silent room, as it were. So they do feel like they form a rhyme, even though they occur more than a minute apart. (The first one is about 1:30 minutes in, the second is at 2:50, and the third is at the very end, at 4:30.) So is that what you mean by a “super-rhyme” – a rhyme that spans the entire song?

Bjørn:  Exactly. Those were the words I was looking for, Willa! “A rhyme that spans the entire song”… I can’t think of a poetry book achieving anything similar. Usually, the “rhyme effect” disappears after a few lines. By contrasting music and silence, Jackson manages to create a rhyme spanning the largest amount of time and distractions that I’m aware of…

Willa:  That’s really interesting. So Bjørn, I was wondering if we could talk about another Michael Jackson song that, quite frankly, I’ve been kind of obsessed with lately: “You are My Life.” It doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, but it does use repeated sounds in a very complex way – maybe more like you were describing with rap than traditional poetry? I’m especially interested in how he uses internal vowel sounds. If we look at the first verse, we find it doesn’t rhyme, which is unusual, but it is dominated by long O sounds: alone, no one, own, lonely.

Once all alone
I was lost
In a world of strangers
No one to trust
On my own
I was lonely

These O sounds are formed at the back of the mouth, back near the throat, and they’re primal kinds of sounds. If you listen just to the sounds of this verse and don’t really think about the meaning of the words, you can still get a sense of his emotional state. It’s almost like he’s moaning:  O … O … O … O. And of course, that fits the meaning of this verse, so the texture and coloring of the word sounds help convey the meaning of the words – specifically, the sorrow he feels at being so isolated and alone, especially after the 1993 allegations hit.

Bjørn: O, that’s interesting! It reminds me of the essay “The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846). In this essay Poe links the O sounds to melancholia. In English, there are a lot of “O” words denoting a sense of loss, so I think that’s why Poe got the idea: old, gone, done, lore, before, forlorn, lost, loss, sorrow, mourning… Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” exploits this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”

And we all know that Jackson liked Poe!

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, I love that connection to Poe! And you’re right – that’s exactly the idea I was trying to get at. And that reminds me – there’s another Poe poem, “The Bells,” that ties in to this discussion really well also, I think. In “The Bells,” each stanza emphasizes a different sound to create the effect of different kinds of bells, both the sounds made by those bells as well as the emotions they evoke: the gaiety of sleigh bells, the hopeful promise of wedding bells, the sudden jerk of alarm bells, the mournful tolling of big iron bells.

And Michael Jackson does the exact same thing in “You are My Life,” with each verse dominated by a different vowel sound. Here’s the second verse:

You suddenly appeared
It was cloudy before
Now it’s all clear
You took away the fear
And you brought me 
Back to the light

So there are some rhymes, or slant rhymes, in appeared, clear, fear, me, but it’s irregular. It’s not a regular rhyme scheme like AA BB CC or AB AB CC. Importantly, the dominant sound is long E, which is pronounced at the front of the mouth and has a much brighter sound than the long O of the first verse, and again that fits the meaning of the song. In this verse, he’s talking about the birth of his children and what that’s meant to him, and how they’ve helped him deal with that dark time. There aren’t any long Os in this verse, though there is something kind of similar:  the OR sound in “before.” Interestingly, this word refers back to the first verse – “it was cloudy before” – so again, the sounds of the words reinforce their meaning.

Bjørn: You’re right that the upfront EE sound is much brighter than the various sounds represented by the letter O. Michael Jackson had been experimenting with vowel qualities from a very young age. Just think about Jackson 5 songs like “Got To Be There.” At one point he sings the word “me” so loud and clear I can’t believe my own ears: meeeeeeeeeeeeee!  In other songs, he lets other vowels “explode” too, as in “Ain’t No Sunshine” (suuuuuuuuuuun) and the much later “You are Not Alone” (alooooooooooooooooone). But still, nothing beats the clearness of the EE sound (which is usually spelt “I” in languages other than English). And in that second verse of “You are My Life” it does seem to indicate a shift in meaning (much like the “high heels” we discussed above). I think the rhymes add to that – even if they don’t follow a scheme. Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information from A to B, you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message! So, the joy of the “you” appearing makes Jackson rhyme!

By the way, are you sure he wrote this song about his children? I always heard this as a love song from a husband to a wife… Most of the metaphors are in the singular, like the classical “You are the sun” (not “You are the suns”!) One of the first times I was listening to this song, in a moment of distraction I even misheard the recurring theme as “You are my wife”!

Willa:  That’s funny! And actually, no, now that you mention it, I’m not sure. That’s just how I’ve always thought about it – maybe because of the music box feeling, especially in the opening. It just sounds like a kid’s song to me. We need Joie – I bet she’d know something about that. But I have to admit, now I feel the urge to listen to it again as a romance and see how it feels that way…

But I love what you just said, Bjørn, that “Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information … you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message!” I see that playfulness throughout Michael Jackson’s work – a poet’s love of words and the joy of playing with the sounds of words, as well as a very skillful use of words for both sound and meaning. For example, the second verse that we were just talking about ends with the long I sound of “light,” which leads beautifully into the chorus:

You are the sun
You make me shine
More like the stars
That twinkle at night
You are the moon
That glows in my heart
You’re my daytime 
My nighttime
My world
You are my life

The chorus is really interesting, I think. When looking at poetry and traditional song lyrics – as opposed to rap, as you described, Bjørn – we tend to focus on the sounds at the end of each line, and in the chorus that position is dominated by long I sounds:  shine, night, daytime, nighttime, and the double beat at the end, my life. To me, long I feels like a very bright sound, which again fits the meaning of the words, and there are more and more of them as the chorus progresses. The ending of the chorus is full of them: of the final 12 syllables, 8 have a long I sound.

Bjørn: Well, the English long I is essentially a diphthong or vowel glide. It starts as an “AH” sound then glides into an “E” finish. Many English-speakers are not very conscious about this, since it’s often spelt as a single letter. Spanish has a similar sound, but there it’s written so you can clearly see the two parts: ay (¡Ay, caramba!) So, as the Spanish spelling illustrates, long I is both a very dark and, as you said, a very bright sound. I hope I don’t come across as having a fetish for high heels now, but I have to drag them into the discussion once again! In the first line of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” what matters is clearly the dark quality of “high.” (It contrasts with all those bright E sounds.) He might just as well have sung Hey pretty baby with the HAH heels on. But you might be right that in this new context, it’s the finish of the “double sound” that shines…

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  Because I see that idea of a “double sound” – and a double meaning – throughout the chorus. There are all those long I sounds but there are also some guttural, back-of-the mouth sounds (you, moon, you’re, more, glows) especially at the beginning of the line. So it’s not all light, and the lyrics reinforce this. He’s not in a place of endless sunshine – in fact, there are more nighttime than daytime images in the chorus, which is unexpected. What he seems to be saying is that he hasn’t left the darkness – the allegations are still there, and he’s still in a very dark time – but his children (or maybe a romantic partner?) have helped him see sources of light within the darkness: the moon, the stars. It’s almost like he suggests the metaphor of “the sun” (“You are the sun”) but then decides that’s not quite right – he’s not in daylight – so he revises that metaphor and says “more like the stars … the moon.”

Bjørn: I’m not sure I agree with you entirely on this, Willa. As someone very interested in religious matters, I guess MJ understood the yin-yang nature of things! There would be no light without shadows. That the lyricist is experiencing a “very dark time,” as you say, doesn’t mean that his nighttime images should be seen as a less desirable alternative to “broad daylight” (couldn’t resist quoting “Bad” here!) I remember Tom Mesereau telling how Jackson, during his trial, used to rise in the middle of the night to take a stroll underneath the stars. And as you and Joie have stressed several times (for instance in the “Best of Joy” discussion), MJ associated the moon with creativity. A modern Chinese poet (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten!) wrote:

The dark night has given me
my dark eyes
With them I seek the light

Willa:  That’s a very good point, Bjørn. We see the moon as an emblem of creativity repeatedly in Michael Jackson’s work – for example, in Moonwalker and the Childhood video. And that suggests another layer of meaning – that he’s thankful to the “you” in this song because they’ve helped inspire his creativity.

So then the third verse is dominated by long A sounds – wake, day, face, pain – which are made toward the front of the mouth, but not as far forward as long E sounds. They’re less bright than long E but calmer, I think. And the fourth verse is dominated by short A sounds – understand, answer, am, man – which are not as far forward as long A sounds, so it’s continuing the progression of the third verse. Like the second verse, the fourth verse ends with a long I sound, leading back into the chorus.

Bjørn: Long A and short A are actually quite different sounds. Long A is a diphthong (just like long I), while short A is a single sound. Long A’s “true nature” is revealed by the way it’s spelt in the word hey! It’s like a “short E” trying to reach the “long E” (ken > cane > keen). So yes, it’s less bright. But I don’t know how to interpret the A’s of these verses. They somehow occupy a neutral position between the guttural U and O sounds and the clear EE sounds, so it’s hard to find any “symbolism” here…

Willa:  I agree that they’re kind of “a neutral position” – they feel calmer to me than the Os and EEs that came before….

Bjørn: But what’s most interesting to me is that Jackson seems to have patterned these lyrics on vowel themes rather than rhymes. That does sometimes happen in poetry, although it’s very rare! Right now all I can think of is a Danish children’s song about “Tre Små Kinesere” (Three Small Chinese). It is often sung as a “vowel game” where you’re only allowed to use one vowel at each singing. You start singing “Tra sma kanasara…,” continue with “Tre sme kenesere,” and so on.

So I guess Jackson’s playing with vowels might support your interpretation of “You are My Life” being a “kid’s song”…

Willa: There’s a similar song in English – a children’s song sung as a “vowel game,” as you said. It basically repeats the line “I like to eat, eat, eat / apples and bananas” over and over again, with a different vowel sound substituted in each time (“ay-pples and ba-nay-nays,” “ee-pples and ba-nee-nees,” …) And there does seem to be a strong sense of sound play in “You are My Life” as well.

I really see that in the bridge, which is very interesting in terms of long vowel sounds. I’ve highlighted some but not all of them:

You gave me strength when I wasn’t strong
You gave me hope when all hope was lost
You opened my eyes when I couldn’t see
Love was always here waiting for me

This progression is fascinating to me because of how these sounds are made. Here’s a diagram to help explain it:


Long U is made all the way at the back of the mouth, by the throat. Long O is just before it. As you mentioned earlier, Bjørn, Long I is a diphthong – a complex sound that’s left off of most vowel diagrams. But it basically starts in the middle of the mouth and moves to the front. Long A is almost at the front of the mouth, and long E is at the very front.  And the first three lines of this verse contain a series of short, one-syllable words that run through the vowel sounds from the back of the mouth to the front, almost like playing scales:




Bjørn: That’s interesting, Willa! I like the idea of “playing scales” on vowels (after all, as a vocalist, the human mouth was Michael Jackson’s most important musical instrument!) He isn’t just “tripping” on vowels here, he’s starting at the very back of the mouth and walking all the way to the front teeth… That gives these lines a very strong sense of release. It’s like both he and the listeners are allowed to take a deep breath, and then breathe out all the air!

Willa:  Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way, Bjørn, but that’s fascinating!  I read an article a long time ago that talked about how, when we read poetry out loud, we re-create the breath of the poet. For example, the author looked at the line lengths of different poets, including Walt Whitman, and noticed that line lengths tend to get shorter as poets become older. So when we read aloud a poem from early in Walt Whitman’s career, we need to take big robust breaths of air like a young man, but when we read aloud a poem from late in his career, we tend to take the shallower, more frequent breath of an old man. In effect, Whitman directs our inhales and exhales and pauses, so we are breathing in precisely the same way he was when he wrote it more than a hundred years ago. It’s interesting to think that when we sing Michael Jackson’s songs, we are re-creating his breath also, and that he is, to some extent, directing our breath – almost breathing through us.

Bjørn: Now, that is fascinating! I’d really like to read that article. I think something similar happens when reading or listening. We all have an “inner voice” that helps us process the words. This mental voice actually has a physical influence on us – I’ve heard one of the techniques taught to achieve speed-reading consists in learning to inhibit the small muscular movements that tend to happen in our mouth and jaws whenever we read!

Willa:  Really?  Wow!  That’s interesting.

Bjørn: This is pure guesswork, but I like to think that the mere listening to a song would have an impact on our breath in one way or the other. I rarely “sing” MJ songs, but for me, a lot of them have this amazing power to change our mood and mind, and the thing you just said about re-creating his breathing pattern might be part of an explanation… (Not that I think he had divine powers, but he certainly expressed more energy and vitality than most of his contemporaries.)

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  It’s kind of like musical meditation – after all, meditation is very focused on regulating the breath.

But getting back to the bridge, the two lines of the final couplet end with long E in a true rhyme – see : me – one of the few true rhymes in this song. Ending with a perfect couplet like this with a true rhyme is one strategy poets use to create a sense of closure, as we talked about earlier. But interestingly, Michael Jackson doesn’t end there. He returns to the chorus, singing it again and again in an increasingly urgent way.

So he gives us a brief moment of resolution in the final couplet of the bridge, but then he denies closure and emphasizes that his situation is not resolved.

Bjørn: Hm, Willa, you’ve given me some food for thought here! You’re right, there is no closure in the chorus, it’s more like a confusing sea of voices. This is something we know from other MJ songs – the reporters in the intro to “Tabloid Junkie” spring to mind. I would argue, however, that the final “You are my life” is an excellent closure to the song as a whole.

Willa:  Really? Because as a listener, I feel much calmer and more settled before the final choruses – they really get me all stirred up. That’s what I meant by denying closure, though you’re right – that final line does resolve things somewhat.

Bjørn:  Yes, imagine the state he would’ve left us in without that final line! After all, he does cater to our need for decent endings, even if he likes to stir things up a bit in the meantime.

Very well. In a blog post we have to give the readers a sense of closure too! I’d like to sum up what characterizes Michael Jackson as a lyricist:

• a keen ear for rhymes and sounds in general
• a rapper’s skill at improvisation combined with the afterthought of a poet
• a clever use of sounds to convey feelings
• a use of sounds and wordplay to entertain (and not just to transfer information)
• a love of internal rhymes

Did you know, Willa, a decade ago I was trying to translate some Michael Jackson songs to Esperanto. Those internal rhymes were quite a headache! How do you transfer “As he came in through the win-dow / it was the sound-of / a crescen-do” (“Smooth Criminal”) to another language? Or “She was more like a beauty-queen from a movie scene…” (“Billie Jean”)?

Willa:  Wow, I bet that was a challenge! How did it work out? Do you still have them? I’d love to see them!

Bjørn:  Unfortunately, I had to give up on “Smooth Criminal,” and “Billie Jean” almost got a similar fate. But then, the very day Michael Jackson was remembered at the Staples Center, I participated in a culture festival in Denmark. A teenage rock group heard of my translation attempts, and asked me to finish “Billie Jean”! So, I sat down, and tried to imagine how it would have sounded like if Michael Jackson had sung it in Esperanto. Later in the festival, I handed the band my finished translation, and after a number of rehearsals, the band was able to enter the stage, with a very young female singer, in a clear but also timid voice, belting out this:

Ŝi aspektis belec-reĝin’ de fikcia kin’
Mi pardonpetis, sed kial vi miiin nomas la li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Ŝi al mi nomis sin Bili Ĝin, kaŭzo de fascin’
Ĉar nun okulis la kapoj siiin-image la li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’
Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’
Kaj panjo ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la am’
Vin gardu en la far’, ĉar mensogoj iĝos ver’
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Dum tago-nokta kvardek’
Helpis ŝin la leĝ’
Sed kiu daŭre kapablas kontraŭi
Ŝian planaron
Ĉar ni dancis sur la plank’, en la rond, kara!
Do mi konsilas vin tre, memoru ke pensu vi re
(Pensu re!)
Laŭ ŝi ni dancis ĝis horo tri
Ŝia vid’ al mi
Ŝi montris foton, karino kriis
Liaj okuloj tiel miis
Ĉu ni dancu sur la plank’, en la rond’, kara!
Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’
Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’
(Ne rompu korojn)
Sed vi venis ĉi-apuden
Ekis dolĉparfumo flui
Ĉi okazis tre tro tuj
Ŝi min vokis al loĝuj’
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne, ne, ne
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne
Ŝi diras mi estas li
(ho, kara)
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
(Vi scias kion vi faris, kara)
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne, ne
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Vi scias kion vi faris
Ŝi diras li mia fil’
Rompas mian koron, kara!
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas

Willa:  That’s wonderful, Bjørn! Thank you so much for sharing your version of “Bili Ĝin” with us, and for joining me today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

(“Bili Ĝin”, translation © Bjørn A. Bojesen)