MJ Studies Today XCI

Abstract: The song “On the Line,” recorded by Michael Jackson and used in the Spike Lee film “Get On The Bus,” is a relative rarity for other than hard-core Jackson fans. In this month’s 91st edition of MJ Studies Today, columnist Kerry Hennigan looks at the song in the context of its origins and subsequent release. She also looks at Jackson’s collaborations with the track’s writer and producer, Kenneth Brian Edmonds, a.k.a. Babyface, another prolific singer, songwriter and producer and (since 2017) fellow member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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, Early Medieval and Medieval History, Anthropology and Religious Studies and has Certificates in the Archaeology of the Ancient World and Ancient Britain from Cambridge University. Her current study focus is on the Viking Era.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XCI: ’All good things come in due time…’ Spotlight on a rare gem: Michael Jackson’s recording of ‘On the Line.’” (14-07-2023). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 10, No. 1 (2023). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xci/

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“All good things come in due time…” Spotlight on a rare gem: Michael Jackson’s recording of “On the Line.”  By Kerry Hennigan

Collage © Kerry Hennigan

“Nothing good ever comes easy
All good things come in due time
(Yes it does)
You gotta have something to believe in
I’m telling you to open your mind

Gotta put your heart on the line
If you wanna make it right
You’ve got to reach out and try
Gotta put your heart on the line
If you wanna get it right
Gotta put it all on the line

Sometimes a recording can be described as a “rarity” when, to the respective artist’s fans, it is a well-known and much-loved favourite. Such a song is “On the Line” recorded by Michael Jackson, but little-known by the broader listening public familiar mostly with Jackson’s established canon as contained on his albums on the Epic label released prior to his death in 2009. Recorded in the mid-nineties, “On the Line” is not on any of those albums. It first emerged in the Spike Lee film “Get on the Bus” (1996) and while not appearing on the movie’s soundtrack album, did feature on a Columbia Pictures promo CD as a potential Oscar nominee for Best Original Song. [2]

The following year the track emerged in a box set that received limited release. Michael Jackson’s Ghosts Deluxe Collector Box Set (1997) contained a VHS copy of Jackson’s long-form “short film” of the same name, a copy of the program from the film’s cinematic premiere, the CD of Jackson’s Blood on the Dance Floor album, which includes songs from the film (minus the original mix of “2 Bad” which was included on the HIStory album in 1995). And finally, a limited edition minimax CD that features Jackson’s recording of “On the Line” plus remixes of two other songs – “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary.”

“On the Line” was written (or co-written, according to some sources) by Babyface (real name Kenneth Brian Edmonds) and produced by him. Born in Indianapolis in 1959, Babyface is the fifth of six brothers. According to his Songwriters Hall of Fame bio, as a boy he learned to play guitar and keyboards and began writing songs in high school. He released his debut album in 1986. Since the 1990s, he has written, recorded and produced hits for many major artists and won 11 Grammy awards. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017. [3]  (Jackson himself was inducted in 2002.) [4]

“On the Line” remained one of Jackson’s rarities until it was included on the more readily available multiple CD set, Michael Jackson The Ultimate Collection released worldwide in 2004. More recently it has also been available via the digital Ultimate Fan Extras Collection as well as on some music streaming services.

At 4.53 minutes for the complete track (4.37 on the minimax CD), this is a song that on casual listening might seem a pleasantly mellow ballad, but if we look at the lyrics, these comply with Jackson’s own philosophy of life, love, faith and self-belief. It encourages us to (once again) make a change if we don’t like what we see when we look in the mirror. This is familiar advice in Jackson’s music, whether or not he composed the track. Asking us to open our minds and put our hearts on the line is typical of Jackson’s social consciousness as already heard in songs like “We Are The World,” “Man In the Mirror” and “Heal the World.”

Andy Healy writes, “Whilst the song is written very much from a first person perspective the song takes on a more anthemic feel as it winds its way through each verse and climbs each additional chorus culminating with Michael joined by a choir.” [5]  Listening to Jackson work himself up to impassioned exhortations in the chorus late in the song resembles his performances of “Man in the Mirror” in concert. “On the Line” is another of those songs that fans might wish to have seen him perform live, since it provides similar scope as “Mirror” for him to stretch his vocals and take his audience to church with his closing ad libs.

“On the Line” is not the only song that came from Jackson’s collaboration with the prolific Babyface. For the project that would eventually become Dangerous (1991), Jackson had enlisted other writers and producers with fresh ideas. Babyface was then partnered with LA Reid, and one of the songs they worked on for Jackson was “Slave to the Rhythm” which did not surface (officially) until the posthumously released Xscape in 2014, an album of demos and unreleased tracks that was executive produced by Reid, by this time chairman of Epic Records. [6]

Babyface would later provide Jackson with the song “Why” which was intended for the latter’s HIStory album. Instead, it ended up being recorded by Tito Jackson’s three sons (Michael’s nephews) Taj, Taryll and TJ, under the name 3T, with their famous uncle dueting with the group and appearing in the short film for the track. TJ revealed in an interview prior to the release of the “Why” single that the song was supposed to have been recorded by their uncle, but: “we loved it so much we kinda ended up stealing it from him.” [7]

“On the Line” originates from this same period of the Jackson/Babyface collaboration. The two would combine their talents once more – for the track “You Are My Life,” which they both produced for Jackson’s Invincible  album (2001). Babyface was one member of the team that wrote the song, which also included Carol Bayer Sager, Jackson himself and John McClain (now one of the co-executors of Jackson’s estate).

One industry observer noted in 2001 that “Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds has achieved success by molding a composing and producing style that works for him, and then placing other performing artists in the spotlight and tailoring his skills to highlight their talent.” [8]  Michael Jackson’s powerful rendition of “On the Line” is an excellent example of what a good collaboration can produce and deserves to be more widely heard. It is, like that other, more famous, anthemic song “Man In The Mirror,” another track not written by Jackson which, in putting his heart and soul into it, he truly made his own.

MICHAEL JACKSON Limited Edition Minimax CD
(Rare 1997 UK/EU limited edition 3-track golden yellow disc Minimax picture CD, featuring On The Line, Ghosts Mousse T’s Radio Singalong Remix and Is It Scary DJ Greek’s Scary Mix. Slim jewel case with J-card picture sleeve inlay. Originally contained inside the Ghosts Deluxe Collector Box Set, with some additional copies available separately for a short time)
Information sourced from https://eil.com/shop/moreinfo.asp?catalogid=198809

Kerry Hennigan
14 July 2023


[1] mjtunes.com “Michael Jackson – On The Line (Limited Edition Minimax CD” http://www.mjtunes.com/modules/mydownloads/singlefile.php?lid=3567

[2] Cadman, Chris. Halstead, Craig. (2009) Michael Jackson For the Record. 2nd Edition – Revised and Expanded.  P. 188.

[3] Songwriters Hall of Fame entry for Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds as accessed 10 July 2023. https://www.songhall.org/profile/kenneth_babyface_edmonds

[4] Songwriters Hall of Fame entry for Michael Jackson as accessed 10 July 2023. https://www.songhall.org/profile/Michael_Jackson

[5] Healy, Andy. (2013) MJ_101 – 101 Greatest Songs. “#85: On the Line.” http://www.mj101series.com/mj-101

[6] Rizik, Chris. (Undated) “The Backstory: The Babyface song for Michael Jackson that sat for a quarter century.” https://www.soultracks.com/backstory-babyface-michael-jackson-slave

[7] Halstead, Craig & Cadman, Chris. (2003) Michael Jackson The Solo Years. AuthorsOnLine Ltd. Page 152.

[8] Eskow, Gary. (2001) “Talent, Timing Put babyface on Top.” Posted in MusicWorld on April 30, 2001. Retrieved from https://www.bmi.com/news/entry/233453

Illustration: “heart on the line…” photo collage created by Kerry Hennigan. No infringement of original photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit educational exercise.