Saturday, September 12, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Art of Interpretation

So I wanted to write an entry about how Michael Jackson was an unheralded songwriter: how, with all the emphasis on his singing and dancing, it was forgotten how good a songwriter he could be. Then I realised that that was completely ridiculous: Michael Jackson is certainly well respected as a songwriter. One of the major frustrations Michael Jackson experienced on his journey from childhood to adulthood was a repeated distrust on the part of his record labels in his abilities as a songwriter. I think it lead to a determination on his part to prove his worth as a songwriter – a determination that led, inarguably, to success.

I came to realise that I should have said the exact opposite: that Michael Jackson’s skills as an interpreter were underrated. Which is not surprising: as a whole in popular music the art of interpretation is undervalued. Ever since the Beatles launched themselves as a ‘whole package’ – singer, songwriter and musician all in one – it has become received wisdom in popular music to hold in contempt anyone who doesn’t write their own material. Inevitably, any product of the ‘star system’ feels the pressure to make a statement of ‘maturity’ by putting out an album laden with self-composed songs. It’s usually their least-successful album. I think Michael Jackson is a brilliant exception to that rule, but it does remain that to a lot of people, Michael Jackson non-originals are in some way ‘lesser’ Jackson tracks.

However, the two things I would have to say are firstly that what really matters about the early Jackson 5 singles is not so much that phenomenal voice but that all-encompassing commitment: that method-actor feeling that Michael Jackson was able to put into lyrics he was much too young to have properly experienced. This is very much the art of interpretation, and it absolutely is an art: it’s what makes Michael Jackson unlike all other child singers, whatever the technical prowess of their voices.

The second thing I would say is: just listen. Not to “Thriller” necessarily but perhaps “Human Nature”. To a certain extent “Butterflies”. Certainly the emotionally compelling “She’s Out of My Life”, where Michael Jackson sings with a commitment that makes the performance seem less Grammy-worthy than Oscar-worthy. But primarily listen to my personal favourite Michael Jackson non-original, “You are Not Alone”, one of the most beautiful songs in his storied discography, and probably the single most beautiful thing R. Kelly has ever written (including “Cry” from Invincible). The emotion Michael Jackson finds in this song is not necessarily buried that deep: its surface-level beauty is part of what I like about it. But it’s just as easy to sing these lyrics passionlessly, enjoying the melody and the mood and worrying about nothing else. This is what I’m sure 99% of popular singers would do with it. What Michael Jackson does is quite something else indeed: as I’ve just said, this is method acting, this is a visceral performance where Michael Jackson actually feels the words as he’s singing them. Too much Presley-Jackson skin in the video, mind you, but a well deserved #1 nonetheless.

I think the best example of Michael Jackson as interpreter can be found on Bad, Michael Jackson’s principal attempt at convincing the world of his songwriting prowess. In an eleven-song album, fully nine songs are self-composed (not even in collaboration with anyone, according to the album credits). One of only two exceptions is “Man in the Mirror”. I like “Man in the Mirror” a lot, even if I don’t love it. It’s a bit belaboured and overwrought, really. But the point is how “Michael Jackson” it is: not just in the composition (by the future writer of Alanis Morrissette’s songs and Michael Jackson’s duet-partner on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”) but in the overall performance. Michael Jackson takes over this song so forcefully that it has become one of those songs that in some way ‘represent’ Michael Jackson. People view it as one of a chain of save-the-world songs, from “We are the World” through “Heal the World” and “Earth Song”. I’m sure most people would assume it was a Michael Jackson composition.

And while it isn’t, it’s ridiculous to say that Michael Jackson made no creative contribution whatsoever to this song that is so undeniably ‘his’; what has happened is that he has transformed it through his singing into something entirely different. And that is most clearly an art form too: the art of interpretation. It’s a pity it’s such a rarely appreciated art.

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