Saturday, November 27, 2010

Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?

A little while ago, Yoggoth and I were talking about Madonna and Michael Jackson (as we are occasionally wont to do), and he asked me if they wrote any of their own songs, and if so, which ones. In a moment of crippling ignorance, I had to admit that ... I ... didn't quite know.

What do any of us know? Well, we all know that Madonna and Michael Jackson were singers. We all know that Madonna and Michael Jackson were dancers. We all presume that Madonna and Michael Jackson didn't play any musical instruments; they certainly didn't appear to do so in concert. But what about Madonna and Michael Jackson as songwriters? The public perception is quite muddy. When people talk about Madonna and Michael Jackson songs, the question of songwriting doesn't really come into it. They sang their songs; they're their songs.

And yet every now and then I have taken a look at the songwriting credits on the backs of Madonna and Michael Jackson albums. What I've seen has raised more questions than answers. I thought I would consult the Wikipedia gods once and for all to finally settle this burning issue.

So what did I find? Well, it turns out that Madonna and Michael Jackson, as I suspected, did not write many of their biggest hits, particularly early on in their careers, although they did indeed write the majority of them. Michael Jackson appears to have written, or at least co-written, most of his material from Bad onwards, and Madonna appears to have co-written almost all of her material from True Blue onwards.

Well, what does "co-write" mean? Ringo Starr supposedly "co-wrote" "Photograph" with George Harrison. Come on, we know who really did the writing there. Did Madonna and Michael Jackson write the lyrics, with someone else writing the melody? Or did Madonna and Michael Jackson write some of the music and some of the lyrics? Did they ever solely write the music? And how do you write the music for a song if you don't play a musical instrument? Do you just sing it, and someone else writes down the notes for you? How the hell did this work?

With someone like Elvis Presley, for example, it's easy. Elvis was not a songwriter. He did not write songs in any way, shape, or form. He relied on other people for songs his entire career (he could, however, play the guitar and the piano quite proficiently). Indeed, there once was a time when popular singers rarely, if ever, composed their own material. Look at Frank Sinatra. Not a songwriter. Then came The Beatles. Suddenly it became de rigeur for singers to also be songwriters. Otherwise you were Joe Cocker.

And yet, dance-pop is one genre of popular music where a premium is not exactly placed on songwriting ability. Whitney Houston and Paula Abdul, for example, did not write their own material. I know, you're crushed. But how many casual '80s pop fans have ever realized that George Michael wrote all of his own material? No one thinks of George Michael as a "songwriter," but there you go. At least no one thinks of him as any more of a songwriter than they do Madonna or Michael Jackson. He was a multi-instrumentalist as well. I've heard he was quite proficient on the penis.

Indeed, what about the "instrument" question? Under the "Background Information" section of Madonna's Wikipedia entry, there is a category called "Instruments" which are listed as "Vocals, guitar, percussion, drums." So Madonna can play guitar? Really? Or can she play guitar in the same sense that I can play guitar? In the section called "Musical Style," there is discussion of her as a "musician" and a "songwriter" with a "gift for hooks," but no mention of any instrumental ability whatsoever.

On his own Wikipedia page, Michael Jackson's "Instruments" are listed as "Vocals, piano, guitar, drums, keyboards." But in the "Musical themes and genres" section, we finally get a decent answer to the songwriting question:
Unlike many artists, Jackson did not write his songs on paper. Instead he would dictate into a sound recorder, and when recording he would sing the lyrics from memory. In most of his songs, such as "Billie Jean", "Who Is It", and "Tabloid Junkie", he would beatbox and imitate the instruments using his voice instead of playing the actual instruments, along with other sounds.
Hmm. So there you have it. I can imitate instruments using my voice as well. Maybe I should be a songwriter too?

Part of the process of becoming an obsessive Beatles fan is studying the ancient lore of "who really wrote what." Sure, any idiot can tell you that all the songs are officially credited to "Lennon/McCartney." But only the true nutjob can tell you that McCartney wrote "I've got to admit it's getting better" and Lennon wrote "It can't get much worse." Ever since my indoctrination into hardcore Beatle fandom, I've been fascinated by the creative process behind the seemingly self-generated hit songs of our time. At some point, somebody had to actually sit down and think, "Gee, can 'holiday' really rhyme with 'celebrate'?" Therefore, in this brief series I will attempt to take a look at Madonna and Michael Jackson as both songwriters and interpreters.

This may ultimately end up being the most informative blog series of all time.


Herr Zrbo said...

The Beatles: now on iTunes.

Also: didn't this article just do what you are setting out to find?

Little Earl said...

If you think the question has already been answered, then you, my friend, have not fully understood the question.

unrealkidd said...

Michael jackson is a brillant songwriter in fact he's one of the best of all time I am a very knowledgeable fan about Michael so Im just not blowing smoke we can talk about it if you want

unrealkidd said...

WOW I can't believe your trying to relegate MJ songwriting ability to piss poor or even a lil bit bad. You seem to lack a lot of info on jackson. The way MJ wrote song was he would dictates sounds into a recorder making the whole song with his voice and than he goes though it with a musician telling him exactly how the song should sound. And believe me he gets it the way he wants it to sound (watch this is it). And if you don't believe me go look at Michael jackson deposition tapes and it like 2 hours of him explaining how he writes songs. Also otw thriller and bad is not the only thing he did I hate when critics write his music off after bad it just so wrong his most poignant and moving work was on history and dangerous songs like stranger in moscow, who is it and earth song are some examples. Also he just didn't start writing songs on his first album. He left Motown and was with his brothers for a while and they put out multiple albums thats where you can see the development of his songwriting abilities, from the first song he wrote that was published blues away to songs like heartbreak hotel which is a masterful song. He also co shake your body to the ground and can you feel it with his brothers( he probably wrote most of it). But if your gonna criticize him as a songwriter do your research buddy instead of talking out your ass and regurgitating bias music critic opinions. Actually listen to the music and make a judgement.