Michael Jackson Leaves Behind Hits Both Large And Small
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Switching gears now, to a story that still dominates the headlines, the death of superstar Michael Jackson. The family has announced that a public viewing of his remains will be held Friday at his Neverland Ranch. And yesterday, thousands of fans gathered at the Apollo Theater to celebrate Jackson's life and his music. Jackson's songs provided a personal soundtrack for millions of fans around the world. And while you may think you can sing along to every great song of the King of Pop, our next guest says there are plenty of classic Jackson songs you may have missed. Steven Ivory is a music writer for the "Electronic Urban Report." He has been reporting on Michael Jackson for years for VH1, CBS and The Los Angeles Times and he joins us now from NPR West. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Mr. STEVEN IVORY (Music Critic, The Los Angeles Times): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You know, Michael Jackson was so successful that it kind of throws a different light on the idea of a (unintelligible). Give us a little perspective on what you mean when you say that a Michael Jackson song is underappreciated?
Mr. IVORY: Michael Jackson came from the Hit Factory. He came from Motown. He learned his lessons at Motown. And Motown, until say the '70s - late '70s was all about the hit single. And so that's where Michael learned his craft. Now he wasn't able to write at Motown because Berry Gordy didn't allow the Jacksons to write at Motown. And that's why they left Motown for CBS. But he did learn how to write a song. And that's what he concentrated on, was writing singles. But there are many Michael Jackson songs that are more high concept than singles that probably are missed.
MARTIN: Let's play the first one. "Stranger in Moscow" is a song from the 1995 album "History". And I'm going to play a short clip and then you can tell us about it. Here it is.
Mr. IVORY: Alright.
(Soundbite of song, "Stranger in Moscow")
Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) How does it feel (How does it feel now) How does it feel? How does it feel? When you're alone And you're cold inside Like a stranger in Moscow, Like a stranger in Moscow.
MARTIN: That's nice. I confess, I have to confess, forgotten all about it.
Mr. IVORY: Yeah, now this is something that you wouldn't hear on - well, maybe you would hear it on top 40 radio. But for the most part, it was one of those quote "album cuts." Michael sings a lot about desperation and situations that he can't get out of or threatening situations. And this is, you know, the quintessential Michael Jackson song in that regard.
MARTIN: What do you think sets him apart as a singer - as a songwriter? We've talked a little bit about him as a singer in recent days and we've also heard a lot about him as a dancer and people all talk about his work ethic, his incredible discipline, his interest in learning from other performers. What do you think sets him apart as a songwriter?
Mr. IVORY: I think that Michael Jackson was still developing as a songwriter. I don't know that he always scored with a hit all the time. I mean, you know, "Billie Jean" was massive, and he had other hits, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," but he sort of got baptized in the fire, if you will, because once he left Motown, they did one album at CBS where they worked with Gamble and Huff, and they got a chance to do a couple of things on their own. But they, you know, they really had to learn on the job.
So by their second album, the Jacksons' second album at CBS, they were writing their things, and it was a hit-and-miss kind of a thing. But you know, a Michael Jackson hit is a real big hit, but a miss is interesting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You wanted to highlight another song from the "Invincible" album. It was released in 2001, and the song is "Butterflies." Let's play a short clip, and you can tell us about it.
(Soundbite of song, "Butterflies")
Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): (Singing) I just wanna touch you. I just wanna touch and kiss, and I wish that I could be with you tonight 'cause you give me butterflies inside, inside…
MARTIN: You said this was not the first single released from the album, and you think that was a mistake. Why?
Mr. IVORY: Well, I think it was a mistake because it would have opened up the minds of the listener. You know, you have to remember that Michael hadn't had an album in a while then, and we didn't know what to expect from him.
Now this thing, he didn't write. A neo-soul duo called Floetry, they wrote this thing, and he liked it, added some things to it, and you know, he became a co-writer on it, I believe. But this would've been something interesting for him to release as a first single because it was something off the beaten path for him and more in-pocket with what was going on at the time, which was the neo-soul thing.
So it would've, you know, created a little more interest outside of the normal Michael Jackson fan. And I just really think it would've been a great hook as the first single, but they didn't ask me.
MARTIN: Well, you know, me neither. But do you think that it's almost like one of these action-movie heroes, you know, actors who perhaps make their name in these big, blockbuster action movies, and then they can't get out of it? You said that he sort of grew up in the hit factory and that even if he had the desire to express himself in a different way, he'd been trained to think in a certain way about what was a desirable song to put out, and that's the groove that he was in.
Mr. IVORY: I think, you know, that is a great analogy. Michael Jackson was trained to look for the hit. All of the stars at Motown were trained to look for the hits. And when Michael got out on his own, you know, people always wondered, why does he go after any number of producers to work on one album? Well, that's how they did it at Motown.
They had a group called the Corporation, about five or six guys who wrote songs for the Jackson 5, but there were also other staff writers who were always vying to get on a Jackson 5 album. So when he left on his own, this is all he knew. It was Quincy Jones that became the singular producer for him for the first time.
MARTIN: Another song that you said was under-appreciated was "Push Me Away," and he recorded this song with his brothers before his big solo hits. But we're only going to pretty much hear his voice, but let's play a short clip and then we can talk more about it.
(Soundbite of song, "Push Me Away"
Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Don't you know these dreams I wish could be the real you and me. I'm running back to you. You push me away, you push me away.
MARTIN: And again, I understand that you think that many of his best songs came early in his adult career, in his adult career. And what do you think changed about his song choices? Why do you think that his best songs came early?
Mr. IVORY: I think what happened was he was about - it was about making the hit. I think "Off the Wall" and, more importantly, "Thriller," changed his outlook on songwriting. It was about coming up with the concept that would sell 15 million units at some point, you know, but this song was a clear example of Michael writing from his heart.
Again, there's that theme of not getting the girl or someone doing me wrong or, you know, you push me away. This was also probably the first song that he discovered a guy named Clare Fischer, who arranged those strings. And Clare just has an ethereal way about his production and his arrangement, and you know, this was where Michael began to blossom as an orchestrator and a composer.
MARTIN: Do you think he was bored, or do you think that perhaps there was no one in his life who was as strong and talented as he was who could say no to him, say that just doesn't work?
Mr. IVORY: I think that was where Quincy Jones came in. You know, they did two fabulous albums together, "Off the Wall" and "Thriller." But later on, Michael did not want that wall there saying, no, I think we need to try another song or another direction on this. He wanted to do it all himself and he didn't want to be contested on it. So I think that was the reason that he and Quincy went their separate ways, ultimately.
MARTIN: Finally, he did have so many hits. If someone wants to kind of go back and rediscover some of the work that you feel perhaps could have been more appreciated in its time but wasn't, what do you recommend? Do you have a favorite, a most under-appreciated Michael Jackson hit?
Mr. IVORY: Oh my God, that is a difficult question. I would probably say that anything post-Motown, beginning with "The Jacksons" album, I would begin to go from there because you had "The Jacksons" album. Then you had "Destiny," and you had "Triumph," and there was a lot of good stuff going on there. And if you listen to those records, you can see the promise that was to become of Michael Jackson.
MARTIN: Music journalist Steven Ivory has reported on Michael Jackson for years for news outlets, including CBS, VH1 and the Los Angeles Times. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. IVORY: Thank you for having me.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And remember at TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends. Now we'd like to hear from you. Is there a Michael Jackson song that touched your heart but didn't hit the top of the charts? Or a Michael Jackson song that you'll always connect to a special time in your life? We'd love for you to share your music and your memories with us. Call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave your name, or you can go to our Web site at the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org and blog it out.
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