The Michael Jackson Songbook

By Laurie WinerMay 24, 2019

The Michael Jackson Songbook
NOT HAVING PAID strict attention to Michael Jackson’s lyrics before his death, I spent three decades singing, “The chair is not my son” whenever anyone played “Billie Jean.” That changed after I saw Leaving Neverland, the Dan Reed–directed HBO documentary in which two men speak about childhoods spent as Jackson’s special friends. The stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson are textbook cases of child seduction, illustrated by miles of video and still footage in which pheromones bounce off of Jackson and his boy friends, whose exuberance in each other’s company is disturbingly infectious. We are hardwired to feel happy for people in love.

Robson and Safechuck speak about their experiences with a frankness and lack of shame made possible by three decades of confrontation with the human propensity for pedophilia, a compulsion from which no country, social class, or profession is immune. Americans undertook this late-breaking examination in the 1980s, around the same time that these two men say the abuse began. Ironically (or fittingly?), the slow reveal of Jackson’s actions over the years (thanks to many journalists, documentarians, and online researchers) contributed to that cultural shift, and Leaving Neverland will take its place as a milestone in continued understanding of the phenomenon.

Before they became tales of abuse, heartbreak, and cruel abandonment, Robson’s and Safechuck’s stories were love stories. Conveying this is a singular accomplishment. Reed is not judgmental; he acknowledges that once your life is invaded by magic — a substance more addictive than money or love (for which you will mistake it) — you will not willingly let it go. You must be dislodged from it. Imagine the elation of seven-year-old Robson, a ferocious tiny dancer who rewound and repeated “The Making of ‘Thriller’” video until he had Jackson’s moves down perfectly, being brought onstage by his idol to dance for 65,000 screaming fans. “I was him for a moment, almost,” says Robson, who describes the event as “dreamlike,” and “sensory overload, emotional overload.” The first time Jackson put his hand on Robson’s thigh, it felt great. “Out of all the kids in the world," he says in the film, “he chose me to be his friend.”

For those of us, myself included, who so harshly judged the Mrs. Safechucks and Mrs. Robsons of the world, Leaving Neverland reminds us that we too, if we examine our lives honestly, have undoubtedly found it convenient to overlook all manner of things in our efforts to court enchantment. When Mrs. Robson remembers watching her son dance on that stage, her voice trembles and almost breaks with her joy; it’s a memory of overwhelming appreciation. At the same time, and this is its great strength, Leaving Neverland says to one and all — are you fucking kidding me with this? Who in God’s name could look at the mountains of evidence pouring out of every crevice and angle of this story, and not see what was happening?

Within the fortress of his talent and fame, Jackson lived exactly as he liked. He was hardly the first star to do so, nor was he the only one to wrestle with conflicting desires for attention and concealment. But, in him, the performer’s primal need to be witnessed collided in a quite spectacular way with the criminal’s compulsion to stay hidden. These conflicting imperatives, played out to their human limit, produced a life that seemed to derange everyone who crisscrossed it, starting, of course, with the man in the mirror.

And what on earth did we think we were watching as the astounding young performer altered his features, the structure of his face and the color of his skin? We peered at his military costumes, his sunglasses, the Kabuki makeup and curls cascading down the front of his face, and winced at the disappearing nose, itself covered at times by surgical masks. We gawked, only half understanding the marriages that looked not at all like marriages, but like the union of two different life forms unsure why people kept insisting they stand together and be photographed.

And even as Jackson cried persecution and sang anthems about children and started charities and wore mask upon mask, in his songs he told us about all of it, how he felt about every part of it. Whatever else he was, Jackson was an artist, and that is what artists do — they turn what they know, at the deepest levels, into art.

And so we have the Michael Jackson songbook, an oeuvre so supercharged with crime and punishment it is Dostoyevskian. “Smooth Criminal” begins on the sound of a fast heartbeat, a titillating sensation similar to one you might feel reading a Patricia Highsmith novel. Jackson sings in rough voice, announcing his presence with a joyous yelp, the call of an animal with a fresh kill. Make no mistake, this is a song about the thrill of getting away with something big; it is a crow of pride — “You’ve been struck by a smooth criminal!”

And no wonder I couldn’t understand the lyrics to “Billie Jean”: Jackson’s verbal illegibility is in keeping with everything else going on in that twilight zone of lust and concealment. (A rather hilarious website that collects misheard pop lyrics lists Michael Jackson as its number-one artist. Shamone!) The one line we could always hear clearly was the singer’s denial that an accuser was his lover. But if that was the case, why is the song filled with unanswered questions, its atmosphere so turbulent and guilty?

Jackson laid out the themes of his life in the very song that made him a superstar. It was with “Billie Jean” that he debuted the moonwalk in 1983, which, with his unfailing instinct for showmanship, he reserved for the song’s home stretch. His beautiful dancer’s body signaled it was moving forward while it was in fact sliding backward. He seemed free of gravitational laws. And, indeed, that is what his new level of stardom ensured, and he seemed to know it in every sinew of his being.

With “Billie Jean,” he interacted on some divine level with all the people of Earth, becoming not a pop star but the pop star, a man whose death would be mourned by one billion people. (When Jackson died, my husband was in an Uzbekistan hotel, where the entire staff gathered around the one TV screen available to them and wept.) “Billie Jean” (original title: “Not My Lover”) is a portal to Jackson World and a reminder we choose the themes of our life (as per the song, mysteries about his parenthood still surround Jackson’s youngest son). With this song, Jackson seizes his future, and he invites us to listen in on his internal debate: “Just remember to always think twice,” followed by the urgent, “Don’t think twice! Don’t think twice!” and a high, wolfish howl.

And finally, a line that could be on his gravestone: “My mother always told me be careful who you love / Be careful what you do / ’Cause the lie becomes the truth.”

Jackson said “Billie Jean” was inspired by the women who followed the Jackson Five when the band toured, trips during which his father and brothers conducted their sexual encounters in the same hotel room with a boy who pretended to be asleep. The father, Joseph, who sired 11 children with two women, presented a protean example of taking what he wanted — his oldest daughter allegedly filed a sexual assault complaint against him when she was 13 and eventually went to live with another family, and another daughter told of sexual abuse as well. The mother, Katherine, was naturally a world-class denialist; I watched a 2003 ABC interview in which she defended Michael, calling his accusers “mean and wicked.” She could reverse course in mid-sentence — “It’s not really plastic surgery, I mean, if you don’t like your nose you get it done.” When reporter Michel McQueen asked Katherine, a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, how she felt about Michael grabbing his crotch onstage, the mother said, “People say he was grabbing his crotch, but he was not grabbing his crotch; if you look he had his hand on the side of his belt like this,” and gestured to the area of her thigh.


I’ve always been obsessed with lyrics. It’s not a showy art form, and it often requires restraint to achieve its greatest effect (in fact, I’ve just finished writing a book on Oscar Hammerstein II and this very subject). Just as poems do, lyrics inevitably reveal something of the author’s interior landscape. When I was a kid, I filled notebooks of favorite song lyrics, which I transcribed from vinyl records. It was a painstaking process. I sat by the turntable, leaning forward every 30 seconds or so to pick up the needle and softly place it a few grooves back, ensuring I got each word exactly right. As a young adult, Jackson’s lyrics escaped my notice; in my ignorance they struck me as primarily dance songs and not ones that demanded my attention.

Listening closely for the first time, I found that parsing the Jackson songbook for autobiography is as ridiculously easy as it is fulfilling, whether the lyrics were penned by him or for him (he authored more than 200 songs). I won’t comment on his many lyrics of persecution, his least interesting persona (though it’s worth noting that in “They Don’t Care About Us,” Jackson conflates his legal troubles with those of citizens who get targeted for no reason other than color). The rest are more telling. They are hardly revelations, but they do tell a story.

 In “Bad” (1987), music and lyrics by Jackson, he makes a promise that he kept:

They say the sky’s the limit
And to me that’s really true
But my friends you have seen nothin’
Just wait till I get through

On that Brisbane stage, Jackson smiles with inordinate happiness watching tiny Wade mimic moves that reek of adult sexuality, while the background lyrics blare, “I’m bad, come on, you know it, I’m really really bad.” Watching some 30 years later, I can draw no other conclusion than Jackson wanted us to know and thought that we did know. And on some not wholly conscious level, we did.

Steve Porcaro wrote “Human Nature” (1983) for his five-year-old daughter after she asked him why a boy had hit her at school. Producer Quincy Jones brought in lyricist John Bettis to refashion the song for Jackson. The melody is contemplative, resigned, and Jackson makes it defiant as well.

When they say why?, why?
Tell ’em that it’s human nature […]
I live livin’ this way
I like lovin’ this way

Jones also recruited Rod Temperton to write for Jackson, and the British songwriter gave the world “Thriller” in 1984. When Jackson invited Jimmy Safechuck to choose any jacket in his closet as a gift, the boy picked the red one that Jackson wore in the famous “Thriller” video — “Of course. Go big,” says Safechuck. Imagine how this nine-year-old, who watched movies in Jackson’s private theater with him before bed, eventually heard this lyric:

’Cause this is thriller
Thriller night
And no one’s gonna save you
From the beast about to strike

Jackson wrote “Xscape” in 1999 for the Invincible album, though it was only released posthumously in 2014. This one needs no commentary. He sings it in his rough, “Smooth Criminal” voice:

Why is it I can't do whatever I want to? 
Went in my personal life and I don’t live for you 
So don't you try to tell me what is right for me
You be concerned about you, I can do what I want to

“The Way You Make Me Feel” was one of five number-one hits from the Bad album, and it is written by Jackson. At the end of the song, Jackson includes a nod to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” a 1922 blues standard by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins that was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1923 and Billie Holiday in 1949. Jackson quotes the song’s title near the end: “Ain't nobody's business but / Mine and my baby.”

How much more did he have to spell it out for us?

Jackson first announced himself as a sexual being in his 1979 album Off the Wall, a veritable compendium of orgasmic falsetto emissions. For Thriller, he gave us a video in which he turns into a monster before our eyes. Then came Bad, for which he toured the world’s stages while dancing with children, including Robson and Safechuck. Next, he asserted he was Dangerous. After Evan Chandler accused Jackson of abusing his son Jordan Chandler, the singer claimed, with less persuasion, that he was Invincible. And he then told us of his need to Xscape, in an album that was released five years after Jackson did escape, thanks to an overdose of Propofol and benzodiazepine.

But while he lived, he shared it all with us, and we loved it. My thesis is that Jackson believed we all tacitly agreed that he should be allowed to do whatever he needed to keep making the music, and that is why he fatally erred in 2002 when he let Martin Bashir film him for months to make a documentary called Living with Michael Jackson. He had no sense of how bizarre he and his life now appeared (Rowan Atkinson and Lenny Henry exaggerated the effect in this parody of Bashir’s film). In one scene, the singer is interviewed while sitting with his new special friend, 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. They hold hands, and Arvizo puts his head on Jackson’s shoulder. The picture they make is nothing like the 1987 photos of Jackson and the angelic Jimmy Safechuck, in which the pair might be an especially loving father and son. By this time, the excessive surgery (don’t stop till you get enough!) had done its damage and the singer’s face resembles a plasticine mask with painted eyebrows and a nose that points to outer space. Arvizo, looking more like a man than a boy, recounts Jackson saying to him, “If you love me, you’ll sleep on the bed.” “And I sleep on the floor!” Jackson quickly interjects. He uses his softest and most innocent voice to give the situation context, explaining, “My greatest inspiration comes from kids […] it’s all inspired from that level of innocence, that consciousness of purity, and children have that. I see god in the face of children.” He adds, “The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone.”

Jackson and Safechuck, 1987

Jackson and Arvizo, 2002

The Bashir documentary caused a public relations and legal nightmare for Jackson. It led to an investigation and a criminal indictment on four counts of molesting a minor, four counts of intoxicating a minor to molest him, one count of attempted child molestation, one count of conspiring to hold the boy and his family captive, and conspiring to commit extortion and child abduction. Jackson’s lead attorney Thomas Mesereau portrayed Gavin’s parents as professional hucksters, which in fact they seem to have been. Mesereau also maligned, in one way or another, a host of witnesses to the abuse at Neverland, including Jackson’s maid, her son (who also said he was molested by Jackson), two former security guards, another former maid, a housekeeper, a house manager, and a cook. They were all grifting for money, the legal team argued, and all — coincidentally — hatched the same plot to get it. At Jackson’s request, Robson testified that he had not been abused, though Safechuck refused to do so. Eighteen months later, a jury delivered a verdict of not guilty on all counts.


Both Robson and Safechuck speak of the love they felt for Jackson (“head over heels,” says Robson), though they also make clear they now see the sex as abuse. On this point, Leaving Neverland shares a thesis with several wholly credible books about the relationships of Jackson and his special friends, including perhaps the oddest one, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons. The author is Carl Toms, a pseudonym for Thomas O’Carroll, a British advocate for legal relations between men and children. Toms/O’Carroll, who was convicted of distributing child pornography, believes there is such a thing as “an ethical boy lover.” Jackson, he concludes, is not that; but if society better understood the value of man-child love, which has been with us since at least the ancient Greeks, then perhaps all the sins committed in order to commit the crime could be avoided. Jackson and his advocates would not have had to smear so many people and would have accumulated less stain on their immortal souls.

On websites for Jackson fans, O’Carroll has been rabidly attacked. “Why are CRIMINALS like Thomas O’Carroll allowed to share their view on innocent people,” screams one headline, bright red letters on black background. Another of the fans’ villains is Diane Dimond, who reported responsibly on the 1993 allegations made against Jackson by Evan Chandler and who went on to write a book about her 12 years covering Jackson, Be Careful Who You Love (Atria, 2005).

“Diane Dimond, who I only know of from her inflammatory and clearly self-interested profile as a Jackson ‘expert,’” wrote one man who says he is a child psychologist, “represents the results of the insidious ‘dumbing down’ of American life that led millions of people to allow their views and erroneous belief in a [sic] innocent’s man guilt to be masticated and served up for them.”

These fans reveal not just an inability to argue but a failure to grasp the full complexity of the human animal. Michael must be innocent despite everything we see, and anyone who says otherwise is a demon from hell, whether they be a member of NAMBLA (or equivalent organization) or a journalist doing her job. Among so many other things, they fail to see how the singer’s actions produced ripple effects that tore apart families; the fathers of both Robson and Chandler committed suicide. And of course they deny the cruelest of all rejections — Jackson’s emotional abandonment of the children when they became too old (around 14) to interest him. Safechuck remembers the night at the singer’s Century City apartment (dubbed The Hideaway), when he slept alone while Jackson took another boy into his room. The darling who had been at the singer’s side for years, who he’d “married” in a secret ceremony at Neverland, was cast out; he could hear the gates clang shut behind him. He lay in bed, crying for his mother, who he could not tell. Jackson had drilled him and Robson into silence, telling them over and over that both he and the boys would go to jail for the rest of their lives if they said a word. Safechuck and Robson said nothing for more than two decades.


Over the years, I have watched hundreds of documentaries related to the Holocaust. Let’s just say it’s an interest of mine. Of all those movies, one sentence particularly stands out, though it is a plain line, not one designed to produce epiphany. It’s from a 1993 documentary made for German TV called Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Trial 1963-1965. A survivor makes the point, “Every Jew, before he or she was killed, was robbed.” And that bit of money, distributed in all sorts of ways to the citizens of the Reich — maybe in the form of a house sold below market value, or some rare artwork — was enough to get ordinary Germans to turn away from what was obvious. Are we certain we would be immune from such temptation? On the day I finished this piece, the papers reported that a team doctor at Ohio State had sexually abused at least 177 young men for more two decades, and that more than 50 athletic department staff members were aware of the doctor’s actions and did not act to stop them, and per usual (as with Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky) there was big money involved. Some version of this story, it seems, runs every day. It is a common occurrence. It is human nature.

Written in 1988 by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, “Man in the Mirror” is a song of sincere contrition. It was one of Jackson’s favorites and it is beautiful. Jackson sang it in a neutral voice, no falsetto howls of desire, no rough criminal persona:

I'm gonna make a change,
For once in my life
Gonna feel real good,
Gonna make a difference
Gonna make it right

For those former fans who say they can no longer listen to Jackson’s music, “Man in the Mirror” may be a bridge back, this time with a wider understanding of the artist and his work. The man in this song looks at himself with clear vision and a desire to do better, to be better, than he has been. It is one of the things that Jackson felt and that we feel when we listen.

Just lift yourself
You know
You've got to stop it,

He wanted to be better, but nobody helped him, not his parents, not his many siblings, no friend or ally, not his managers, his lawyers, his collaborators, his record executives, his security detail, not his special friends’ families. Around the time that Jackson settled the Jordan Chandler case for more than $20 million, the singer’s sister La Toya had a moment of clarity. “You stop and think for one second and you tell me, what 35-year-old man is going to take a little boy and stay with him for 30 days? […] I love my brother but it’s wrong. I don’t want to see these kids hurt.” Saying she could no longer be a “silent collaborator,” she revealed that her mother had shown her receipts for large checks Jackson made out to parents of other of his special friends. She also spoke of abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father, Joseph, who turned to her after her older sister left the household. La Toya later recanted everything, claiming she had been coerced by her then-husband Jack Gordon, a man convicted of pandering (pimping), who once beat her so badly he thought he had killed her. She returned to the bosom of her family and never again spoke against them. Which leads me to the question: if you had access to a spigot of money connected to the Michael Jackson songbook and few other options, would you turn it off?

Jackson was no dope. As a child, he called out his own father on his brutality, and he lived to see Joseph Jackson’s secret crimes come into public view. He knew at the very least that there was a high probability his own open secrets would one day be fully revealed. You can only contain so many witnesses for so long.

That day has come. We can think of his songs, if we like, as a message to us from that contrite Michael, the one in “Man in the Mirror,” who sincerely wanted to do better and wanted us to know him fully. It recalls Michael at age 11, singing from some faraway angelic ether in a voice of ungodly beauty:

You and I must make a pact
We must bring salvation back,
Where there is love, I'll be there.

In the background and singing the bridge, his brothers provide a wall of sound and protection and support, back when it was possible to say it and mean it with all their hearts — “I’ll be there to protect you […] I’ll be there to comfort you […] I’ll be there with a love that’s strong, I’ll be your strength, I’ll keep holding on.”

I find it both comforting and wrenching to re-encounter those brothers and that boy, the one with preternatural emotional maturity, who sang with a tenderness that taught us about tenderness, before the damage was done. You hear, “Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter, togetherness is all I'm after,” and he appears, the innocent one, the one who did not fail us or himself, or anyone else he loved or who loved him. He’s still there.


Laurie Winer is a longtime journalist who has been on staff at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.


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