On Michael Jackson's 60th birth anniversary, celebrating his profound songwriting genius

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

Aug 29, 2018 08:35:37 IST

Michael Jackson was weird. The Oxford Dictionary defines the adjective “weird” as “suggesting something supernatural; unearthly”. Informally, the dictionary adds, the word also denotes “very strange, bizarre”.

His was a voice so distinct that he made hiccups seem melodic. His was a gait so nimble that everything from the moonwalk to his breakdance moves were mesmerising. His was a life so extraordinary that it scaled colossal fame and dove to the monstrous depths of infamy. His fans and his detractors may have contrasting opinions about his life and genius, but even they would be united in their acceptance that a phenomenon like Michael Jackson was almost otherworldy. Michael Jackson was undoubtedly the textbook definition of the word “weird”, but he was also a celebration of it.

He would have been 60 on 29 August 2018, and what greater occasion than his diamond jubilee to reflect on one of the most illustrious gems of pop music ever. For a genre steeped in easy-listening tunes and danceable rhythm, lyrical writing isn’t really much of a pre-requisite. Michael Jackson was certainly gifted with a great voice and a strong sense of rhythm, but behind the sheen and superficial aspects of the genre, lay a profound songwriting mind.

Michael Jackson was the first artist to ever top the Billboard pop singles, R&B singles, and album charts simultaneously. Photo courtesy Facebook/@michaeljackson

Michael Jackson was the first artist to ever top the Billboard pop singles, R&B singles, and album charts simultaneously. Photo courtesy Facebook/@michaeljackson

Michael Jackson wasn’t technically educated in music; he couldn’t notate, but that didn’t stop him from writing some of the best pop anthems to have ever graced the genre. In various interviews, Jackson has shown how he beatboxed his way to some of his greatest hits. Like Mozart is known to have heard entire symphonies in his head, Jackson would have the song entirely chalked out in his mind. He’d create various instrumentations of his songs by singing or beatboxing, record these and have musicians and producers fill in actual instrumentation in place of his scatting.

His legendary tape recorder would hold detailed descriptions with beatboxed portions to elucidate what Jackson had in mind. Often times, he’d have these tapes delivered to studio musicians with the lyrics he’s written, telling them what the song ought to sound like. Renowned in the industry as a tireless musician and performer, Jackson would offer his tips along the recording process, sometimes vehemently sticking to his guns against the advice of senior producers.

'Billie Jean', the classic from his iconic Thriller album is one such example. Darryl Hall of Hall & Oates reportedly said that Jackson came up to him and told him that he has stolen the groove of the band’s 'I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)'. “I got talking to Michael Jackson and he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind. I stole the groove from 'I Can’t Go for That' for my song 'Billie Jean'.’ I told him: ‘Oh Michael, what do I care? You did it very differently.’ I can’t say I’d ever noticed but he was quite insistent. Of course, I went away and listened to 'Billie Jean'. And sure enough, it was our groove.”

Hall was obviously a lot better at reacting to this than Jackson’s producer and music biz legend Quincy Jones. If Jones had it his way, the song would’ve been titled differently, and the iconic extended intro bass riff would’ve been done away with. Legend has it that Jackson held his ground, and told Jones that if that portion was removed, it takes away his ability to dance to the song. “‘That’s the juice. That’s what makes me want to dance.’ When Michael Jackson tells you that’s what makes me want to dance well, the rest of us just have to shut up,” Jones once said in an interview.

Also read — Michael Jackson's Thriller turns 35: How it shaped the artist, industry and MTV generation

For most fans, 'Billie Jean' has been about that unmistakable juice and Jackson’s subsequent moonwalk that went on to become synonymous with the song. But to restrict it to that would be a gross injustice to Jackson’s songwriting skills. It has always been one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs and the bass line has been a big part of the reason why. But it wasn’t until Chris Cornell: Unplugged in Sweden, a recording of the late Soundgarden/Audioslave vocalist’s all-acoustic small concert, that the sheer conflict and pathos of the lyrics really hit me. Of course, with a voice like Cornell’s, it was hard not to be moved by a song but in his own way he reiterated why Michael Jackson’s songwriting was often overshadowed by his melodies, beats and most of all, his persona. In an interview with Rolling Stone a week after Jackson’s demise, Cornell said, “I liked 'Billie Jean' because it had that little keyboard line in it, which I thought I could turn into an electric guitar line. And it was just embarrassingly awful. When I started reading the lyrics, I realised it’s a lament, not a dance track. His moon walking and the video as well, as just the bass line and the beat, took precedence over the meaning. The lyrics are brilliant, and the way that the way the lyrics are put together. The story isn’t spoon-fed to you, it’s poetic.”

The dance moves and lingering melodies were what Michael Jackson wanted you to see; his lyrics were what he truly wanted to say.

That really has been a defining quality of Jackson’s genius and remains amongst his greatest legacies. His songwriting to a large extent ran parallel with the way he lived. The dance moves and lingering melodies were what he wanted you to see; his lyrics were what he truly wanted to say. If one just has a look at a range of his songs such as 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough', 'Beat It', 'Bad', 'Smooth Criminal', 'Dirty Diana', 'The Way You Make Me Feel', 'Black or White', 'Will You Be There', 'They Don't Care About Us', 'Scream', 'Earth Song', 'Man in the Mirror', among others, one gets an idea of the sheer brilliance of a man who could not only grasp a hit riff or groove, but also write with an honesty that isn’t often attributed to him. Sure, he had a team of songwriters he would go to, to fill in for songs whose tunes he had figured out but not the words, but that can’t take away from those other songs he wrote start-to-finish.

How strange is it that for a man whose private life has played out so widely in public, one about whom so much has been documented in various media, his songwriting talent remains almost an after-thought! There will only be one Michael Jackson. And his legacy only serves to remind us that there was always something unearthly about his talent.

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 08:35:56 IST