What makes a great song? Rhythm? Melody? Structure? Musicians? Hi-tech engineering? According to Michael Jackson, a great song created itself. Rhythms, melodies and lyrics simply came to him, like ripe fruit waiting to be picked. Nevertheless, Jackson’s personal songwriting skills and techniques were how he made his jam. Here’s a glimpse of how he did it.
This article is the sequel to:
Michael Jackson, the songwriter (Part 1)
Compositions by voice
One of the most interesting aspects of Jackson’s songwriting was his ability to create entire compositions by voice. Melodies, rhythms, instruments and harmonies: Jackson’s voice simply sang what he had in mind. This modus operandi made sense, considering the fact that Jackson received no formal music training and only played the piano passably well. His self-created mode of songwriting, nevertheless, produced remarkable results.
That’s not to say that Jackson was solely responsible for his songwriting successes. Professional musicians such as his musical director Brad Buxer would often sit down with him to develop ideas. At other times, producers that Jackson worked with came up with suggestions for music tracks to which Jackson would add, for example, melodies and lyrics. Then, if the sounds grasped him, Jackson would take the process to the next level.
Yet Jackson’s collaboration with others, as well as the fact that he was not considered to be a professional musician, also fueled criticism. Critics argued that Jackson increasingly depended on ‘song doctors’ to finish his albums and could therefore not be called a true songwriter, let alone a true musician.
The question is, of course, which definition of ‘songwriter’ or ‘musician’ applies. If the human voice is defined as a musical instrument – as it should – Jackson was a remarkably versatile musician. Not only did he master a range of four octaves, he was also credited with having perfect pitch and being able to use his voice as a percussion instrument. Unknown to many, his sophisticated beatboxing skills feature in songs such as ‘Stranger in Moscow’, ‘Who Is It’ and ‘Tabloid Junkie’. Other examples have surfaced as fragments in interviews and court depositions.
Similarly, music notation needs not be limited to reading and writing notes in a classical way. Jackson’s way of recording the various parts of his compositions by voice doesn’t diminish his value as a songwriter, especially not considering the fact that he wrote hundreds – if not thousands – of songs and music scores.
New sounds and universal melodies
Most importantly, however, Jackson didn’t sit around at home, waiting for the final product to be delivered to him on a silver platter. Instead, he put in countless hours in the studio, crafting the no-less-than-perfect songs he had in mind.
When the sound he needed couldn’t be found, he created his own. “We go out and make our own sounds. We hit on things, we beat on things, so nobody can duplicate what we do,” Jackson said, speaking of his Invincible album during an online chat at GetMusic.com in 2001. “We make them with our own hands, we find things and we create things. And that’s the most important thing, to be a pioneer. To be an innovator.”
Besides innovative sounds, melodies were key for Jackson. “It’s a universe of where you can go, with those 12 notes (…) It’s the melody, the melody is most important. If the melody can sell me, if I like the rough, then I’ll go to the next step. If it sounds good in my head, it’s usually good when I do it. The idea is to transcribe from what’s in your mentality onto tape.”
Moreover, Jackson searched long and hard to give his music character. “If you take a song like ‘Billie Jean’, where the bass line is the prominent, dominant piece, the protagonist of the song, the main driving riff that you hear, getting the character of that riff to be just the way you want it to be, that takes a lot of time,” he told Ebony Magazine in 2007. “Listen, you’re hearing four basses on there, doing four different personalities, and that’s what gives it the character. But it takes a lot of work.”
In Jackson’s opinion, melodies took music around the world. “I think, like, the rap thing that is happening now, when it first came out, I always felt that it was gonna take more of a melodic structure to make it more universal, ‘cause not everybody speaks English. And you are limited to your country. But when you can have a melody, and everybody can hum a melody, then that’s when it became France, the Middle East, everywhere!” he told Ebony.
“You have to be able to hum it, from the farmer in Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem to anybody who can whistle, to a child poppin’ their fingers. You have to be able to hum it.”
Lyrics mattered as well. Interestingly, Jackson’s lyrics have long been considered the weakest part of his songs. But as time moves on, this perception is changing. As early as the 1980s, Jackson addressed topics in his songs that the majority of mainstream artists shied away from. ‘We Are the World’ and ‘Heal the World’ have become timeless humanitarian classics. ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ addresses racism and social inequality and has become a central song within the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US.
‘Morphine’ hauntingly describes the effects of drug addiction. ‘Earth Song’ offers a desperate plea for planet Earth, questioning war and environmental pollution. ‘Childhood’ relates the loneliness of Jackson’s youth, and ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ deals with broken homes, abusive relationships and runaways. The list of Jackson’s socially conscious songs is longer than many may expect.
Despite the gravity of these topics, lyrics would come to Jackson as naturally as rhythms and melodies. Giving an example during the 1993 court deposition, Jackson said: “Certain words come into your head at a certain time that are fitting for the melody. Certain words come with the melody at the same time that it’s created, you know… (sings: ‘Heal the world’). I mean, I didn’t think about it, it just came (sings ‘Make it a better place’). So it came with the melody. I thought about it: wow that’s nice, heal the world, let’s heal our planet.”
Writing songs while washing dishes
‘Heal the World’ may well be one of the most influential and timeless songs that Jackson ever wrote. Coming from someone without a classical music training, it shows that talent and hard work may, after all, be the factors that determine success. Jackson’s humble beginnings didn’t stand in the way of such accomplishments. In fact, they helped him to become the unique songwriter that he was:
“We never had music or dance lessons. We were a family that sang all the time. We watched TV. We would entertain ourselves, we would take the furniture out of the living room and dance,” Jackson reminisced during Simulchat in August 1995.
“I think you’re pretty much born with a gift and you’re compelled to create. That is what I have always felt. I remember when I was really little there was rain outside and we would make up songs. Janet and I would have a songwriting game while we washed the dishes, while we were cleaning. I think most kids don’t do that these days. It was our destiny.”
© Annemarie Latour