Saturday, February 5, 2011

Michael Jackson: Songwriter

If, three months ago, you strapped me to a chair, tied a blindfold around my head, and forced me to answer the question, "Who wrote more of their own songs: Michael Jackson or Madonna?" I'm not sure I would have even been able to make a good guess. I'll never have to worry about this terrifying hypothetical scenario ever again: the correct answer is Michael Jackson. Hell, Michael Jackson didn't even need much help. Here is a list of some of the songs that only bear the songwriting credit "Michael Jackson." They are some pretty good songs and you might have heard them on the radio at some point:

"Don't Stop Til You Get Enough"
"Wanna Be Startin' Something"
"The Girl Is Mine"
"Beat It"
"Billie Jean"
"The Way You Make Me Feel"
"I Just Can't Stop Loving You"
"Smooth Criminal"
"Black Or White"
"Who Is It"
"Will You Be There"

How did he do it? Wikipedia doesn't give us too much detail regarding the melodic aspect of the compositions, mostly discussing the lyrical inspiration. But really, what I want to know is, how did this guy write those catchy, catchy hooks? Somebody knows, but it's obviously not somebody on Wikipedia. Perhaps Michael himself did not even know. As if it matters anyway. Below are some informative tidbits. The "Bille Jean" stuff, in particular, is even weirder than I thought it would be.

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough":
Jackson claimed that when the melody of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" came to him, he couldn't shake it off. He found himself humming and singing it while walking through the Jacksons' Encino home. As Michael could not play, he had his brother Randy perform the melody on a piano in the family's recording studio.[3] When Jackson's mother, a devout Jehovah's Witness, heard the song, she was shocked by the lyrical content. Katherine pointed out that the title could be misconstrued as pertaining to sexual activity.[5] Jackson reassured her that the song was not a reference to sex, but could mean whatever people wanted it to.
So wait, how does "You know this ... force it's ... got a lot of power ... make me feel like a ... make me feel like a ... ooh!" not refer to sex? And yet somehow, because it is Michael Jackson we're talking about here, I believe him.

"Wanna Be Startin' Something":
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was written, composed, and co-produced by Michael Jackson, and produced by Quincy Jones. It was originally written for his sister La Toya Jackson about her troubled relationship with her sisters-in-law, but Michael ended up recording the song and La Toya sometimes performs the song at her concerts.
"The Girl Is Mine":
The writing of "The Girl Is Mine" was completed by Jackson as he watched cartoons with Paul McCartney.[1] Producer Quincy Jones had initially told Jackson to write a song about two men fighting over a girl. Inspired, Jackson awoke during the night and sang the song into a tape recorder. He later said, "I sang exactly what I heard in my head, starting with the melody and the keyboard and the strings and everything. So, I just orally put it all on tape." Jones also asked the singer to add a rap verse. Jackson recalled, "Quincy called me up one morning and says, 'Smelly'—he calls me Smelly—'we have to have some rapping in this.'"[2]
So clearly Michael Jackson's idea of rapping is this:

Paul: Michael, we're not going to fight about this, OK?
Michael: Paul, I think I told you, I'm a lover, not a fighter.

I don't think Ice Cube had anything to worry about.

"Beat It":
Producer Quincy Jones had wanted to include a rock 'n' roll song, though Jackson reportedly had never previously shown an interest in the genre.[2][3] Jackson later said of "Beat It", "I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song... That is how I approached it and I wanted the kids to really enjoy it—the school kids as well as the college kids."
"Billie Jean":
There are contradictory claims as to what the song's lyrics refer. Some believe that they are derived from a real-life experience, in which a mentally ill female fan claimed that Jackson had fathered one of her twins. Others, pointing to the fact that Jackson was an avid tennis fan, believed that the song was about tennis great Billie Jean King; however, King's sexual preferences since 1968 render implausible any contention that the song's narrator, who claims to have had both a romantic encounter with Jackson and a child resulting from that encounter, was modeled on King. Jackson himself, however, stated several times that "Billie Jean" was based on the groupies he and his brothers encountered while part of The Jackson 5.[1][2][3]

"Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the '60s." He added, "They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers."[4]

Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli promoted the theory that "Billie Jean" was derived from a real life experience the singer faced in 1981. The Magic & The Madness documents how a young woman wrote Jackson a letter, which informed the singer that he was the father of one of her twins.[5][6] Jackson, who regularly received letters of this kind, had never met the woman in question and ignored it. The woman, however, continued to send Jackson more letters, which stated that she loved him and wanted to be with him. She wrote of how happy they would be if they raised the child together. She pondered how Jackson could ignore his own flesh and blood. The letters disturbed the singer to the extent that he suffered nightmares.[5]

Following the letters, Jackson received a parcel containing a photograph of the fan, as well as a letter and a gun. Jackson was horrified—the letter asked that the pop singer kill himself on a certain day and at a specific time. The fan would do the same once she had killed their baby. She wrote that if they could not be together in this life, then they would be in the next. To his mother's dismay, Jackson had the photograph of the woman framed and hung above the dining room table of their family home. Afterward, the Jacksons discovered that the female fan had been sent to a psychiatric hospital.[5]

Jackson wrote "Billie Jean" with his female fan(s) in mind, and later stated that when he wrote the song, he knew it would be a success. "A musician knows hit material. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. That's how I felt about 'Billie Jean'. I knew it was going to be big when I was writing it."[1][7] The singer explained that he was so absorbed by the song that, in one instance, he did not notice that his car had caught fire as he drove down a freeway with a friend until a passing motorcyclist informed him. Jackson noted, "The kid probably saved our lives."[1][7]

"There never was a real Billie Jean. The girl in the song is a composite of people my brothers have been plagued with over the years. I could never understand how these girls could say they were carrying someone's child when it wasn't true."
"Bad" was originally intended to be a duet between Jackson and musician Prince, although the plans were not followed-up on.[1] In Jackson's 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, Jackson discussed the concept of "Bad", elaborating that,

" 'Bad' is a song about the street. It's about this kid from a bad neighborhood who gets to go away to a private school. He comes back to the old neighborhood when he's on a break from school and the kids from the neighborhood start giving him trouble. He sings, 'I'm bad, you're bad, who's bad, who's the best?' He's saying when you're strong and good, then you're bad."[2]

In a 1988 interview with Ebony and Jet magazines (which was released on Hulu shortly after his death), Jackson said that he had gotten the idea for the song from a true story that he had read about in Time or Newsweek magazine.[3] Jackson stated that the story said that a student that went to school in upstate New York, who was "from the ghetto", had tried to make something of his life and planned to leave all of his friends behind when he returned from Thanksgiving break.[3] He added that the student's friends' jealousy resulted in them killing the student; Jackson stated that the student's death was not included in the music video.[3]
Shades of "Jenny From The Block"?

In conclusion: Michael Jackson was one talented dude. Although he did not write some of his most famous hits, he wrote many, if not most of them, and did so without a collaborator. I, for one, would like to hear some of those demo tapes.


Peter Matthew Reed said...

Who hangs that picture up?! These are some great stories.

Herr Zrbo said...

"To his mother's dismay, Jackson had the photograph of the woman framed and hung above the dining room table of their family home."

Yeah, wait, whut?? He was disturbed by this crazy woman, so to alleviate his fears he hung up a picture of the lady so that she'd been staring at him everytime he sat down for dinner?? I'm confused.

"The singer explained that he was so absorbed by the song that, in one instance, he did not notice that his car had caught fire as he drove down a freeway with a friend until a passing motorcyclist informed him."

Was he listening to the song as he was driving down the road, or did he just have it on his mind? I'm confused here.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

And if it was in his mind, what was distracting the friend? Did the friend not want to disturb MJ in his reverie? We demand facts!

Little Earl said...

Hey I just cut and paste this shit, I don't write it.

Herr Zrbo said...

I'm currently cataloging old magazines at my job and I came across this 1984 article in Discover Magazine on MJ. I couldn't help but reprint the opening paragraph here:

"If popular heroes are a reflection of the culture of their time, what is one to make of a 25 year old black American man who looks like a wood sprite, who has never smoked, taken drugs, or tasted liquor, who eats no red meat and fasts on Sundays, a virginal recluse with few friends who spends his time watching his vast collection of cartoons, who lives in an ornate Tudor mansion with his parents and a pet snake, llama, ram, peacocks, swans, and deer, who dresses in sequined uniforms and dances like a satyr, who was won the hearts of adolescents of all races and both sexes the length and breadth of the land, and, even more remarkable, the approval of their parents as well? Are we really that emotionally and sexually confused?"

Looks like nothing changed since 1984!

Andrew Yates said... - Beat It - Billie Jean - Don't Stop Til You Get Enough - Who Is It accapella/gearbox

This was written long ago but if you've still to come across those demos then here are 3 plus an insight into how they come about