Michael Jackson can certainly be counted among pop music’s greatest songwriters. We know that many of his classic and most iconic hits were songs he penned himself, from “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” to “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Black or White,” “Earth Song” and, well I could go on and on. You get the idea.
But that still leaves an amazing number of songs that Michael recorded and performed that were nevertheless written by others. To make the clarification, I am not referring to songs he merely covered. If we counted all of the songs that Michael covered throughout the span of a forty-five year career, including his Jackson 5 and childhood solo career, that would be a mind boggling number indeed. No, this is about something else. This is about those songs that have become so indelibly and inextricably identified with Michael Jackson that casual fans are often shocked to discover he didn’t write them; those songs that seem so reflective of Michael’s own personal values (and for which he made us connect with them so strongly in his performances) that it seems almost inconceivable to believe he was only their interpreter, and not their writer. On the other hand, we can also include songs that were not necessarily huge hits but that. nevertheless, seemed to define in some way who Michael was.
This is not to any way impugn the credit that these songwriters deserve. When I call these the songs that Michael should have written, what I mean is that these are songs that are so iconically identified with who he was and the values he represented that it is almost impossible to disconnect the song from the performer.
The reality is that many of Michael’s most iconic songs didn’t necessarily originate with him. But all the same, we know that something must have drawn him to “connect” with these particular songs. In some cases, such as “Man in the Mirror” we at least know that those songs were written specifically for him to cover. And in at least some cases we know that he did have a major hand in shaping the eventual, finished product even if he didn’t necessarily receive a co-writing credit.
Below is my personal pick of the Top Ten songs Michael Jackson didn’t write but “should” have.
10. When We Grow Up
Michael was only fifteen when he recorded this duet with Roberta Flack in 1974. The song’s message about hanging onto the innocence and fun of childhood-about never changing even when “we grow tall”-conveys the same whimsical, Peter Pan ideals that would become a stalwart fixture of Michael’s adult ethos. It really begs the question: Is it possible that the songs Michael sang in his youth helped influence and shape his adult aesthetics? With lyrics like “we don’t have to change at all” (i.e., we don’t have to become corrupted by adulthood) this song certainly seems like a page torn straight from Michael’s adult solo career.
9. Rock With You
This isn’t the first time we’ll be visiting Rod Temperton on this list. Off the Wall, of course, was Michael’s huge breakthrough album that launched his adult solo career. and it also launched his songwriting career. He wrote two of the album’s tracks, including its monster breakout hit “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” and co-wrote a third. However, this number-one of the album’s hugest hits, and easily one of Michael Jackson’s most iconic songs-was not one of them. Temperton wrote quite a number of tracks that Michael eventually recorded (as well as having previously written songs for Heatwave and many others). What makes this song so uniquely Michael, however, is the interpretation and the vocal. It is arguably, in fact, probably his strongest vocal performance (just listen to his enunciation of “I wanna ROCK with you” and try to argue that any other singer could have pulled that off!). This is the kind of song that would become most identifiable with Michael’s post-Jacksons, pre-Thriller era, an airy, romantic, mid tempo dance number with soaring, clear vocals (this was the era before Michael added all of the grit) and lots of bling. Moreover, lyrics like “And when the groove is dead and gone/You know that love survives” will prove to be influential in Michael’s own romantic songwriting down the road.
8. She’s Out of My Life
By the time Michael was twenty-one, he had already written songs about global causes (Can You Feel It) and even a pretty angry relationship song (“Working Day and Night”) but the one thing he really hadn’t penned yet was a tender love ballad. They would come in time-“Liberian Girl,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Speechless,”etc. But if there is one love song that most people readily identify with Michael, it’s this Off the Wall track written by Tom Bahler. There’s just something about that sensitivity Michael brings to this number that is oh so very Michael! It is also an early example (well, an early adult example, anyway) of Michael’s trademark ability to emote. No one could make us feel a song quite like Michael, and that was due to the innate ability he had to connect with a song’s emotions. There is a well known story told by Quincy Jones of how every single time Michael recorded this song, he broke down. Take after take. At some point they just gave up trying to get a sob-free track, and went with it. The result is brilliant. That little quiver at the end is so real we just knew Michael had to have lived it.
Another masterful Michael Jackson interpretation, the Charlie Chaplin penned “Smile” was covered on Michael’s 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. Its beautiful blend of pathos and theme of finding strength in times of adversity was perfectly suited for an album that had chronicled much of Michael’s dark, turbulent years in the mid 1990’s-and a fitting closure, bringing the album’s arc to its beautiful but heartbreaking finish (the poignancy being born out of the fact that the narrator has not actually overcome his troubles; he has simply learned how to swallow the tears and fake it pretty well!). Throughout his career, Michael had maintained a deep aesthetic connection with Chaplin, and often cited “Smile” as his favorite song. So deep was his connection to this song that it was sung at his memorial service, and few songs can better sum up the pathos of Michael’s last years, when adversity after adversity must have indeed made it hard to put on that brave front to the world.
6. You Are Not Alone
The second love ballad on our list, “You Are Not Alone” is one of those love songs so closely identified with Michael Jackson that it still seems a bit jarring to realize he didn’t write it (and apparently even R. Kelly’s authorship was successfully contested, at least in the Belgian courts). However, Michael did put many of the finishing touches on the song, including the modulation and choir climax at the end; in short, shaping much of the song’s final structure. All of those little things that make the song so uniquely “Michael,” were, in fact, due to Michael’s direct input, so maybe we can feel good about saying “You Are Not Alone” was, at the very least, a Jackson collaboration. After the 1995 video featuring Michael and Lisa Marie Presley, the song became forever cemented as being synonymous with their relationship. It even inspired its own anagram, YANA girls, to describe the random girls chosen to come onstage when Michael performed it during the HIStory tour.
5. I’ll Be There
Who would’ve thought that the early Motown writing team of Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, and Bob West would have written a song when Michael was only eleven years old that would sum up the entire altruistic philosophy of Michael’s adult career? Yes, it’s supposed to be a simple love ballad, but looking back on it in hindsight, from the moment little Michael sings the words “You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back/Wherever there’s love/I’ll be there” it’s virtually impossible to think of this performance as apart from the same artist who, twenty-one years later, would bring us “Heal the World” and would advocate the healing power of love; who, in fact, would always tell us, “I love you more.” Years later, the song remained a staple of Michael’s adult repertoire, the only Jackson 5 song usually performed in its entirety during his concerts. Clearly, Michael never lost his connection to this song.
Could there have been any song better suited for Michael Jackson to sing than a song about a boy whose best friend is a rat? Only Michael could have possibly made such a “love” song not only believable, but downright heartbreaking. And in one of those weird twists of fate, this song seemed to actually prophesize Michael’s adult life, in which his favorite animals often filled the void of loneliness and replaced relationships with people he couldn’t trust. Somehow it doesn’t seem a stretch to believe that the same little boy who sang “Ben” would one day own a fantastical kingdom filled with exotic animals.
3. Human Nature
Speaking of all the interpretations that only Michael could bring to a song, how’s this? Only Michael Jackson could make a song about cheating and going on the prowl for one-night stands seem, well, like a positively religious experience! Perhaps that isn’t entirely coincidental, given that “Human Nature” is a phrase often used in Christian indoctrination, usually to describe the fall from Paradise and the natural human inclination to sin. A famous sermon from William Ellery Channing, delivered sometime in the 1830’s or early 1840’s, and later published in 1872, was devoted to what Channing called “The Religious Principle in Human Nature.” In its most exalted form, according to Channing, “Human Nature” is that which imbues the human spirit with the desire to seek something greater than ourselves; i.e, a “higher power” or more perfect version of ourselves. The drive for “Truth” and “Purity” are only polar opposites of the same drive that compels us to seek earthly or fleshly gratification. “Human Nature,” the song, was first composed by Steve Porcaro of Toto. Since Porcaro presented the original demo to Quincy Jones, it may be presumed that Porcaro had always intended that Michael Jackson would sing it. The song’s lyrics were actually completed by John Bettis (and by this point there was no doubt that this was going to be a possible track for the Thriller album). Even if Michael didn’t write the lyrics, he was clearly attuned with the song’s spiritual undertones. UPDATE: For more interesting background info on “Human Nature,” be sure to check out the comments!
Given Michael’s legendary love of horror films, An American Werewolf in London, “The Twilight Zone,” and sci-fi themes, it seems almost mind boggling to realize that he actually did not write “Thriller.” Good gracious, could any song have been more tailor made for Michael Jackson? Did any song ever sound more like it just had to have come from straight out of his fertile and out-of-the-box imagination? Well, for sure, Michael did have a big hand in the overall concept of the video and some of those iconic images we so associate with “Thriller.” But the song itself was actually a Rod Temperton demo first titled “Starlight.”
1. Man in the Mirror
Michael Jackson became known for his great, altruistic anthems. But ironically, perhaps the one that is most associated with him-certainly his most commercially successful anthem-was a song written by Siedah Garrett (who couldn’t even look at the “man in the mirror” since she was a “she”). However, Garrett was actually commissioned by Quincy Jones to write this ballad specifically for Michael’s Bad album, so just as with a few of the other songs on this list, it was always understood from the very beginning that this was going to be a Michael Jackson song. And for those who may be a bit disappointed to learn that Michael didn’t actually write the words that so many have since associated with him, like looking at “the man in the mirror” and “make that change”-take heart. Garrett has revealed in later interviews and talks that the song as we came to know it was very much a collaborative effort between her and Michael. Just as with “You Are Not Alone,” Michael initially liked the song but wasn’t happy with certain parts. He kept pushing Garrett to come up with a stronger bridge, and would not record the song until the bridge had been brought up to his specifications. And, as with “You Are Not Alone,” he added the modulation and choir-all those little finishing touches that, of course, made the entire difference. Lastly, his famous 1988 Grammy’s performance proved once and for all that he was, indeed, the master of interpretation.
Let me know if you agree with my list!