Abstract: In 1987, Michael Jackson released a song called “Liberian Girl” on his album Bad. But how many people outside of Africa who heard the song knew about the country Jackson depicted as a lush, fantasy landscape? The history of the real Liberia was then one of years of civil unrest, a far cry from the paradise Jackson evoked with his song. In this month’s MJ Studies Today, columnist Kerry Hennigan looks at the history of the country, and the song that remains much beloved in Liberia – and by Jackson fans everywhere.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the free monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and an MJ blogger on WordPress. Kerry is a student of Ancient and Medieval History, Archaeology, Anthropology and Religious Studies and has a Certificate in Archaeology from Cambridge University.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXXVIII: ‘You Changed My World.’ Michael Jackson and the lure of Liberian Girl.” (14-04-2023). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 9, No. 4 (2023). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxxviii/
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“You Changed My World.” Michael Jackson and the lure of Liberian Girl. By Kerry Hennigan
Photo collage © Kerry Hennigan
“Liberian Girl, you came and you changed my world, just like in the movies…”
Whenever I’ve listened to Michael Jackson’s song “Liberian Girl,” I’ve often wondered how many people know much about the place referenced in the song’s title. Unless one had some cultural connection or physical experience of the country, or knew someone who did, it’s not likely to have been the focus of many conversations. Yet, Michael Jackson composed a love song about a girl from Liberia and included it on his 1987 album Bad. The track was eventually released as a single in Europe and Australia in 1989, the ninth and final single from the album. But how much did Jackson know about Liberia? Probably more than most; he had a great love for the African continent, and as an inveterate reader of a wide variety of books on many different topics, including volumes on African American history and biographies, he was probably well aware of its history.
Composed of 43,000 square miles on the west coast of Africa, Liberia was founded in 1822 as a colony for returning freed slaves from the Americas. It became independent in 1847, by which time a hierarchical caste system had evolved in the country. This social stratification relegated the indigenous African Liberians to the bottom of the social ladder while the Americo Liberians and their descendants held the power. This situation continued into the 20th century – right up to 1980. Attempts at reform were chaotic and violent, ending with a coup that saw the Constitution suspended. Civil war followed, until the UN Mission in Liberia stepped in as peacekeepers. Free elections were finally held in 2005, but this post-dates Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” which had been written and recorded when the country was verging on civil war. 
Jackson’s song is a sublime romantic ballad dripping with exotic impressions of lush beaches and dark-haired beauties. In it, Jackson transformed the troubled nation into a tropical fantasy landscape, from which comes a beautiful woman who wins his heart. In its infancy, the song was called “Pyramid Girl,” written by Michael just after his Thriller success. “I wrote that at my house in the game room,” Michael said. “I guess I was playing some pinball or something, and the song just popped into my head. And I think I ran upstairs, put it on tape, and it became ‘Liberian Girl’…..I don’t think about it, it just comes.” It might have ended up on the Jacksons’ Victory album if Michael hadn’t wanted to work on it for one of his solo outings. It was one of the songs he initially recorded with his so-called B Team of John Barnes and Bill Bottrell at his home recording studio in Encino. It took Quincy Jones by surprise when he heard it, and engineer Bruce Swedien loved it.
“Who could think of a thing like that, except Michael Jackson?” Bruce wrote in his book In the Studio with Michael Jackson. “It’s astounding – the imagery, and everything else in it. It’s just an amazing musical and sonic fantasy.” He describes Michael’s vocals in the song as “absolutely stellar! The lead, and the big, block background harmonies. Wow!” As one Jackson fan wrote in an online forum, “Michael’s sultry sexy vocals brings me to my knees!”  Those vocals are clearly heard when isolated from the rest of the recording, as in vocal coach Chris Liepe’s YouTube video using the original multi-tracks for the song. “In these studio multi tracks of Liberian Girl, we get to hear the unprocessed lead vocals,” Chris writes in the video notes. “This means that we get to notice how he works the mic, the full range of his dynamics as he goes from character to character with this voice, and a number of easter eggs found between the sung phrases!”
The “Liberian Girl” we hear on the Bad album was little changed from Michael’s B-Team version, on which most of the work was already done. As described by Joe Vogel in Man in the Music, “it casts a spell over the singer and audience alike. One is entranced by the paradise-like atmosphere, the mysterious woman, and the dramatic narration of events.” 
In the end, it matters not what inspired this beautiful ballad, or if it has any relationship at all to the real Liberia. What matters is that Liberians embraced it and the rest of us loved it. Even though, to the general public, it is probably one of his lesser-known songs, “Liberian Girl” stands the test of time and changing musical trends to still shine brightly amongst the many jewels in Jackson’s rich catalogue.
Memory of Michael Jackson uplifts Liberia In war-ravaged Liberia, the King of Pop wasn’t just a musician with fierce dance moves and a howl to match. Michael Jackson, who died June 25 at age 50, brought hope to this West African nation destroyed by 14 years of civil war. Today, Liberia is at peace, but Mr. Jackson’s songs, such as “We Are the World,” “Heal the World” and the lesser-known but beloved “Liberian Girl,” continue to uplift this traumatized nation. – GANTA, Liberia, 2 July 2009 The Washington Times. 
14 April 2023
 Dennis, Peter. “A Brief History of Liberia.” The International Centre for Transitional Justice, May 2006. Retrieved April 2023 from https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Liberia-Brief-History-2006-English.pdf
 This quote originates from Michael’s 1987 interview with Darryl Dennard for Ebony/Jet magazine and was used more recently on his official website: www.michaeljackson.com “Liberian Girl.” Retrieved April 2023 from https://www.michaeljackson.com/au/track/liberian-girl/ The interview is available to view, as restored by Peaches Restores using AI, on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73UJ20c73Hg Liberian Girl is mentioned at approximately 7.30 min.
 Swedien, Bruce. In the Studio with Michael Jackson. Hal Leonard Books, NY 2009, pages 45-46.
 MJTunes. “Liberian Girl.” Forum post 2013. http://www.mjtunes.com/modules/mydownloads/singlefile.php?lid=147
 Liepe, Chris. “Michael Jackson LIBERIAN GIRL Original Studio Multitracks! (Listening Session & Analysis.)” Uploaded June 22, 2022. Retrieved April 2023 from https://youtu.be/HVA4X-mxjNo
 Vogel, Joseph. Man in the Mirror. The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. Vintage paperback edition, 2019, page 184.
 The Washington Times. “Memory of Michael Jackson uplifts Liberia.” 2009. Retrieved April 2023 from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jul/02/king-of-pop-uplifts-liberia/
Illustration: “Liberia” photo collage compiled by Kerry Hennigan from an official photograph by Sam Emerson for the “Liberian Girl” single, plus public domain image of “The President’s House at Monrovia, the Capital of Liberia in (1853)” by T. Williams from The Illustrated Magazine of Art, 2, pp. 95−96. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not for profit, educational exercise.