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Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape (part 2)

“As sad as it may be to admit, in our modern world people are far more accustomed to hearing news of war, genocide, murder, disasters, famine, and disease than they are to hearing anything about acts of love or grace.”––from Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry

Fans gather to celbration Michael Jackson's life and legacy at MJ Forever Tribute.
Dave J. Hogan, Getty Images

Written by Jackson and the great singer-songwriter Paul Anka, the song “Love Never Felt So Good” grooves pleasantly enough to a mid-tempo pace that comes dangerously close to standard disco. The tribute to disco’s signature beats may very well be intentional, as the Xscape liner notes imply. However, the repetitive lyrics possess none of the narrative drama of a song such as “Human Nature” or the fluid seductiveness of “The Lady in My Life.”

The song takes its strength and appeal from the intensity of Jackson’s vocals. His ability to infuse a single syllable with the charged lightning of barely-contained passion could make almost any song sound like a masterpiece. One nevertheless tends to hope for material that more adequately matches such rare genius.

Moreover, as danceable as much of the King of Pop’s music was during the disco era, what placed him miles ahead of the herd was that he never used canned formulas, disco or otherwise. His innate originality blasted new pathways into nearly genre of music and made it possible for many who followed to build entire careers on their repeated interpretations of single aspects of his artistry.

Love and Honor

Yet if the above observations are true (or even close to the truth) why would someone as formidably talented as “L.A.” Reid have selected “Love Never Felt So Good” for the lead, middle, and concluding tracks on the 17-song deluxe CD? Perhaps the producer’s point was not the debatable quality of the recording itself. Is it possible his intent was for the song to introduce the theme of the many aspects of love that runs throughout Xscape? As Reid himself put it:

“…During this project we really studied him—he talked about love. He talked always about giving love. It was never about how much love he got back. And we feel it’s our responsibility to really defend his honor. And really stand for what he stood for. And he stood for love.”

Such a statement about someone as hounded and guerrilla decontextualized as Michael Jackson so frequently was should not be too quickly dismissed. It covers more territory than is immediately apparent. It speaks of the give-everything-hold-nothing-back kind of love the singer expressed so fearlessly through his music and person, and which caused millions across the globe to feel an essential part of themselves had died when he did on June 25, 2009. Love, after all, in Mr. Jackson’s world, was never anything less than a cosmic-scaled event. The recognition, anticipation, and experience of L-O-V-E were what gave human existence its purpose and what made divine promises credible.

Pumping up the Volume

If “Love Never Felt So Good” provides Xscape with a less than spectacular start, the second track, “Chicago” a.k.a. “She Was Lovin’ Me” kicks it into higher jaw-dropping gear. The lyrics by Cory Rooney are as ethically intense as Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” For all of his shy demeanor and hypersensitivity, MJ often confronted in his songs complex moral dilemmas that others either avoided altogether or dismissed as inconsequential in favor of short-lived pleasures without much guilt:

“She tried to live a double life
Lovin’ me while she was still your wife
(she’s wanting me)
She thought that lovin’ me was cool
With you at work and the kids at school...”

Vocally, Jackson doesn’t just flow from a state of stunned innocence to pained outrage. He virtually performs by himself a duet in which he underscores the tragedy that occurs when people go beyond betraying each other to betraying the beauty of love itself. The agony of that betrayal explodes with cyclonic fury and astonishing artistry.

How Love Feels and How Love Is

The fire lit with “Chicago” continues to burn with “Loving You.” This third track—whether you reference the “contemporized version or the original––smolders with heated degrees of romantic longing that Jackson rarely committed to recordings. It delivers the enchanted reverie suggested by “Love Never Felt So Good” but which the latter, arguably, does not quite pull off. It also marks a natural progression from earlier romantic ballads with the now adult Jackson (around 29 at the time of the recording) expressing dreamy desire without succumbing to artless raunch. The lyrics, penned by the singer, ready as uninhibited poetry:

“Hello August Moon
Where are the stars of the night?
You promised me too soon
Cause it’s been cloudy all night
And the weatherman said
“If you’re not well stay in bed…”

The layered vocals showcase vintage form with zero room to debate superlative craftsmanship. It is a wholly captivating performance because he issues a very bold call that invites an equally bold response.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape Part 3

by Aberjhani
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

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