In the brief, electric prime of Michael Jackson, millions danced to "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and other songs so propulsive it almost didn't matter what they actually said.
But the lyrics — whether Jackson's or others' — could be as disturbing as the music was liberating. Sealed in the grooves were tales of deceit, paranoia, violence and victimization. Even before his life broke apart and the tabloids bore down, Jackson sang like a boy-man under attack.
"You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it," he warns on "Thriller," the title track to his all-time selling album and written by Rod Temperton. "You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes/You're paralyzed."
Jackson was almost 21 when his first "adult" record, "Off the Wall," came out in 1979. He had survived the childhood beatings and insults by his father and had already lived at least one life in show business, as the smiling, spinning prodigy fronting his brothers in the Jackson Five.
"Off the Wall" sold millions and shed the catchy, but impersonal persona of his child star youth. The title track, written by Temperton, was a lighthearted introduction to what would become Jackson's truest subjects: his strange life and the stolen innocence he wanted back. "The world is on your shoulder," the song advises, but "life ain't so bad at all/If you live it off the wall."
‘It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right’He would soon fire his father as his manager and vow that his next record, "Thriller," would make him the biggest star in the business — a promise met like few others. "Thriller" sold more than 20 million copies initially and sales now top 50 million. It earned him the title he bestowed on himself, "The King of Pop," and offered the first full take from the throne.
"Michael Jackson wrote songs for one great artist — which was himself," says Diane Warren, the Grammy-winning songwriter who has written for Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson and Mary J. Blige.
Warren says Jackson also picked great songs by other writers — see "Thriller" — and "was an amazing interpreter" of them. Among his songbook, she spots a theme of defiance and toughness that perhaps acted as protective armor.
Music producer Glen Ballard was in the studio with Jackson and Quincy Jones for the making of "Thriller," and worked on the later "Bad" and "Dangerous" albums, co-writing the songs "Man in the Mirror" and "Keep the Faith."
"As he grew up and matured as an artist, his lyric writing had this sort of air of mystery about it," Ballard says. "He still knew how to write hooks — he just knew how to communicate that way — but he sort of created this vocabulary" that was darker, surreal and futuristic.
The bouncy duet with Paul McCartney, "The Girl Is Mine," is an interracial love triangle. The hard rock "Beat It," set to the switchblade guitar runs of Eddie Van Halen, is an anthem of pacifism, or passivity, with Jackson pleading to stop a gang war — and perhaps all wars — because "It doesn't matter who's wrong or right."
‘The kid is not my son’
The singer in "Billie Jean" has been taken by a girl he meets on the dance floor and later claims has borne him a child. "Billie Jean is not my lover," he chants, teeth clenched. "She's just a girl who claims that I am the one/But the kid is not my son."
Jackson's "Billie Jean" lyrics are paranoid, defiant and "cool," Warren says.
"Maybe in a way he wanted to be left alone," she suggests, noting the trauma of his missing childhood.
If so, Jackson did not give that impression in the recording studio, according to Ballard. He remembers Jackson as "very shy" around people he'd just met, but when he felt comfortable, he was funny and fun to be around. He was collaborative yet focused on his larger musical vision. He moved and grooved, feeling the music. When Ballard and others hosed him with water guns on his birthday, Jackson grabbed a water gun and joined in.
Ballard had no idea about Jackson's life outside the studio. As for "Billie Jean," he can't point to any real-life experience or demons within the pop legend's psyche.
"It's just this incomplete portrait that you can fill in however you want and you can see it as this huge, mysterious, sort of tragic story or something," he says of the 1983 chart topper.
The same woman, or at least another named "Billie Jean," turns up in the equally besieged "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," in which Billie Jean is another exploiter "always talkin'/when nobody else is talkin'/tellin' lies and rubbin' shoulders." Again, there's a child and Jackson, the alleged Peter Pan of popular music, doesn't want to know:
If you can't feed your baby
Then don't have a baby
And don't think maybe
If you can't feed your baby
Jackson was a cultural radical who broke through racial barriers on MTV and shattered the old rock clique of white men with guitars. But his politics were more personal than collective, avoiding confrontation as surely as the guy in "Beat It." In "Man in the Mirror," from the 1987 "Bad" album, he worries about "the kids in the street/with not enough to eat," and concludes that the answer is to "take a look at yourself and then make a change." He would later call to "Heal the World," although doesn't say how beyond making sure that "you care enough."
Scandal and chaos only made him look harder, at himself, and at others: The boasts of "Invincible" and "Untouchable," the rage of "Tabloid Junkie" and the taunts of "Threatened." In the self-evident "Privacy," the world is a trespasser peeking through his window: "Ain't the pictures enough, why do you go through so much," he asks. "To get the story you need, so you can bury me."
Ballard, who has written for Alanis Morissette and George Strait, among others, says the passionate performer was a "remarkable songwriter" who "absolutely" felt his songs' lyrics.
"I don't think there's any question that that was just falling out of his creative, unpremeditated self. ... He tapped into his `whatever' and he was using it like an artist should and sort of creating these characters — maybe they're him, maybe they're not," he says. "You get distance from it. (The lyrics) just really have this kind of compelling, mysterious, very cool air about them, in addition to being really hot at the center with these grooves."
You could heat a country on all the energy spent wondering what happened to Jackson in the second half of his life and what eventually killed him. But he explained himself well in the trembling "Childhood," set to Hollywood strings and to a melody lost and forlorn as an orphaned boy.
That song "was probably the most autobiographical of all his amazing lyrics," says Grammy-winning songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, who co-wrote "That's What Friends Are For" with Burt Bacharach.
"Have you seen my childhood?" Jackson wonders, his voice light and high. "Before you judge me, try hard to love me/The painful youth I've had."