MJ Studies Today LX

Abstract: In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan continues her discussion of ballads and love songs recorded by Michael Jackson, commenced in our October 2020 column.  The songs examined in Part 2 are “She’s Out of My Life”, “Liberian Girl” and “Childhood.”  This month’s column is dedicated to the memory of celebrated sound engineer Bruce Swedien, who died 16 November 2020, aged 86 and who contributed so much to Jackson’s recordings.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger.  Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.

Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LX: A Feeling So True: Michael Jackson and the art of ballad singing Part 2. (14-12-2020).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 7, No. 2 (2020). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lx/

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A Feeling So True: Michael Jackson and the art of ballad singing Part 2. By Kerry Hennigan

© Kerry Hennigan

Though written by Tom Bahler, the break-up ballad “She’s Out of My Life”, fourth single from Michael Jackson’s 1979 album “Off the Wall”, felt personal to the young superstar.  Even in the short film for the song, Jackson appears to be uncomfortable expressing sentiments related to romantic love.  In his 1988 autobiography “Moonwalk”, he admitted to breaking down at the end of a take.  “I got too wrapped up… the words suddenly had such a strong effect on me.  I had been letting so much build up inside me.  I was twenty-one years old, and I was so rich in some experiences while being poor in moments of true joy.” [1]

In light of the problems Jackson had later in life in establishing or sustaining meaningful female relationships, it is tempting to read more into his rendering of Bahler’s song than is actually there.  It also pays to remember that we are talking about a performer who, from an early age, exhibited a depth of understanding for the emotions in a lyric or tune that was nothing less than extraordinary.

Some years later, on 1987’s “Bad” album, the love song “Liberian Girl” – the ninth single release from the album (excluding the US) – would have listeners believing that Jackson knew enough of what he was singing about for the result to be sensuously full-bodied.  It also brought some much-needed attention to the little-known African republic which had been founded in 1822 by freeborn black Americans – a project of the American Colonization Society, composed of abolitionists and slave-owners who felt that Africa would provide better opportunities for black Americans.  [2][3]

Following Michael’s death in 2009, the Washington Times published a quote from a Liberian woman named Margaret Carson, mother of four daughters, who felt the song promoted Liberian women and made her feel good to be one.  “When that music came out … the Liberian girls were so astonished to hear a great musician like Michael Jackson thinking about a little country in Africa,” Mrs. Carson said. “It gave us hope, especially when things went bad…. It make us to feel that we are still part of the world.” [4]

Audio from a recording session for the song displays Jackson’s gift for sublime harmonies, which are beautifully showcased on “Liberian Girl.” [5]  In his book “In the Studio with Michael Jackson” Bruce Swedien stated that the song was one of his “absolute favourites of all the music that I’ve done with Michael…Michael’s vocals on “Liberian Girl” are absolutely stellar!  The lead and the big, block background harmonies.  Wow.” [6]

“Childhood”, the song Jackson said was his most autobiographical, was paired with “Scream” for the first single release from his 1995 double album “HIStory, Past, Present & Future, Book 1.”  It (along with “Smile”) was sung live by Jackson with an orchestra.  Swedien remembers the vocals of both songs being so good they needed little fixing. [7]  Author Pez Jax describes Jackson as he was filmed in the recording booth for this song, “Entirely emotive in his delivery, he turns conductor as the orchestra plays the composition and expresses ‘Yes, Yes!’ while grasping the air in ecstasy.  The vocal performance was recorded from top to bottom and defined by those who were present as flawless.”[8]

Jax also notes that mixed in with “whimsical Peter-panesque lines of ‘watch me fly’ and ‘Like Pirates in adventurous dreams’ lay the scars of a man attempting to convey through his music why he is the way he is, with an emotional plea for understanding.” [9]  Jackson’s fans clearly understood, as did his sister Janet.  Rob Hoffman, sound engineer on the “HIStory” album, recalls the time when Jackson played “Childhood” for Janet.  He told author Brice Najar, “She was so emotionally overcome because for anyone who knew Michael, this song is massive.” [10]

In his address to the Oxford Union Society in 2001, Jackson described himself as “the product of a lack of childhood, an absence of that precious and wondrous age when we frolic playfully without a care in the world, basking in the adoration of parents and relatives, where our biggest concern is studying for that big spelling test come Monday morning.”  He told the audience that he had become a performer at 5 years of age, and had been singing and dancing ever since, but while performing and making music was one of his greatest joys, “when I was young, I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy.” [11]

This longing for his lost childhood, which haunted Jackson to the end of his life, is expressed with painful honesty in the self-penned “Childhood.”  His critics over the years who dismissed his sentiments on the subject, preferred to project their own cynicism on his intentions.  Yet, seldom has a singer-songwriter laid their heart as bare as did Michael Jackson who just wanted to be given the chance to be understood.  As with the love song “She’s Out of My Life”, touching people’s heartstrings made him feel a little less lonely. [12]

The pathos of Michael Jackson’s heartfelt ballads and love songs, whether written by others or himself, probably give us the best glimpse possible into the soul of the artist.


[1]  Jackson, Michael.  Moonwalk. Arrow paperback edition 2010: p.163. https://www.amazon.com/Moonwalk-Michael-Jackson/dp/0307716988/

[2]  Songfacts.  “Liberian Girl by Michael Jackson” accessed Nov 2020. https://www.songfacts.com/facts/michael-jackson/liberian-girl

[3]  Washington Times “Memory of Michael Jackson uplifts Liberia” published 2 July 2009. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jul/02/king-of-pop-uplifts-liberia/

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=308656433484478

[6]  Swedien, Bruce.  In the Studio with Michael Jackson.  2009: pp 45-46.  https://www.amazon.com.au/Studio-Michael-Jackson-Book/dp/B003L1ZYLU/

[7] Ibid pp 53-54.

[8] Jax, Pez. The Story of HIStory. 2020: p.175.  http://sixteen11.com/product/the-story-of-history/ and https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0993178065

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Brice Najar.  Translator: Laetitia LaTouche.  Let’s Make HIStory.  2016: p.195. https://www.amazon.com.au/Lets-Make-HIStory-insight-album/dp/1533296723

[11]  Lewis (Jones), Jel D.  Michael Jackson, the King of Pop: The Big Picture : The Music! the Man! the Legend! the Interviews : An Anthology.  2005: p. 151.  https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Jackson-King-Pop-Interviews-ebook/dp/B06XYJGGRQ/

[12]  Jackson, Michael.  2010: p.164.

Additional Reading:

Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LVIII: Feeling and Soul: Michael Jackson and the art of ballad singing Part 1. (14-10-2020).”  The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 7, No. 2 (2020).  https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lviii

Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXXVI: ‘The Magic, the Wonder, the Mystery’  – Perceptions of childhood as expressed in the art of Michael Jackson and in Romantic poetry and children’s literature. (16-12-2018).”  The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, no. 2 (2018).  http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxxvi/


Photo montage “whether to laugh or cry…” compiled and edited by Kerry Hennigan.  Lyric sheet photographed by the author.  No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in the use of the professional image of Michael Jackson for this not for profit, educational exercise.