Question 1: It's distressing to hear the analysis of how "Earth Song" was never released in the United States. Could you expand on the cultural reasons for this?
Joe Vogel: Well, there have been various explanations, including that the album was underperforming in the U.S. But I personally find that hard to believe when the previous two singles were Top 5 hits. In fact, "You Are Not Alone" was the first single in the history of the Billboard chart to debut at #1. "Earth Song" was next in line and went #1 all over the world, but it wasn't released in the U.S. Hit singles increase album sales, so there are really only two explanations: 1) it was blocked in some way, or 2) it wasn't seen as viable in the U.S. because of its content. The people I spoke with mentioned both of these as possibilities. Either way is disturbing.
Question 2: How long did it take you to finish this Earth Song research? Are there any tidbits (didn't include in the ebook) you would like to share? Any fun stories about Michael during the recordings?
Joe Vogel: The foundation was already there since I had written about it for Man in the Music. I did research and interviewed about ten people over a period of 2-3 months. It was like putting a puzzle together. I started with a lot of questions and tried to recover, as best I could, the song's evolution and what Michael wanted to achieve with it. I tried to include all the interesting stories in the piece (or the footnotes). I personally love the story of him knowing he would "kill his voice" doing the ad libs at the end of "Earth Song" and saving them until the final day of recording.
Question 3: Which score (sheet music) have you used for your analysis of the chord progression in the chorus?
Joe Vogel: I didn't use sheet music; the chords were explained to me directly by the musicians that worked on the song with Michael.
Question 4: Why did you imply that Michael was singing live at the "bridge collapse" concert in 1999? That was playback . . . while it was admirable that he kept performing when the set prop malfunctioned, he really had no choice. I don't want to seem like I'm harping on something or "missing the point" but I just felt that part was misleading and I want you to be able to stand up with 100% credibility.
Joe Vogel: Well, first of all, I don't agree that he "had no choice" but to keep performing. He absolutely had a choice and it is pretty remarkable that the show went on (including an encore performance). As for the vocals, in my book, I also don't point out that Michael is lip-syncing during the Motown 25 performance. I don't feel this is "misleading." I just feel it would distract from what is important about the performance. The bottom line is whether Michael was singing live or not, he could still convey the emotions and energy of the song, and he poured his soul into that rendition.
Question 5: My only concern was many of Michael Fans are of the Jehovah’s Witness(JW) faith and felt his portrayal of their faith in that piece was inaccurate. I would like to ask Joe where he got the information for a statement he made about the JW beliefs? Who does he credit the info came from in that part of his study?
Joe Vogel: It wasn't my intent to offend Jehovah's Witnesses. I also don't pretend to be an expert on the Jehovah's Witness faith, though I have read about it (including its own official materials). In the piece, I was simply describing Michael Jackson's spiritual transformation, which I've researched pretty extensively. Michael's spiritual worldview evolved dramatically as the 80s went on. It wasn't just sadness about missing Christmas and birthdays; he was censored and threatened numerous times by church elders (including for Motown 25, the Thriller video, etc.). He felt a lot of frustration, anxiety and sadness about certain teachings that wouldn't allow him to be who he was and express himself in a way he felt was natural. He came to doubt many of its teachings. He officially resigned in 1987. The reason I brought it up in my piece is that "Earth Song" began in 1988 and everyone who worked with him could tell his views about life had evolved. While I don't pretend to know all the intricacies of the JW faith, it is well-established that they believe in Armageddon and that the time of its arrival is set. Nothing people can stop it. So when Michael is saying, we need to wake up, we need to heal the world, do we give a damn? he is clearly trying to prevent the calamities and destruction that would be inevitable according to Jehovah's Witness doctrine. In both his songs and Dancing the Dream, his new worldview comes through and it clearly has transformed and given him a renewed sense of artistic purpose. So that's what I was trying to articulate briefly in my piece.
Question 6: Will you be including this study of Michael's Earth Song in your book?
Joe Vogel: No, they are separate, although I do write about "Earth Song" in Man in the Music.
Question 7: The Earth Song piece was very well written, and quite an interesting read. How does the style and content of this piece compare to your analysis of Michael's other popular songs in your upcoming book, Man in the Music? Although this piece is understandably much more extensive in terms the number of pages allotted to this one song, can we expect to feel that same sense of satisfaction and enlightenment after reading the sections on, say, Smooth Criminal or Remember the Time?
Joe Vogel: I would say they are pretty similar, though as you say, obviously I wasn't able to dedicate as much time and space as I did to "Earth Song" to every track. But every song gets covered in a way that I hope opens up some new insights about its creation and meaning.
Question 8: (For both Earth Song piece and for your book) Did the estate give you access to any information or did you have to research and hunt it all down yourself?
Joe Vogel: The Estate was very helpful and has provided wonderful feedback/insights over the past two years. But there was a lot of hunting down as well. I tried to reach out to people we haven't heard from before, a lot of lesser-known collaborators. I wish I could have done even more. There are so many great stories to recover.
Question 9: I'd like to know if Joe has any information about what inspired Michael to write Little Susie. There have been numerous theories about where that song came from. Some say the song was based on a news story in 1979, others say it's based on a painting or poem, and some even say Little Susie is Michael. I'm just curious whether he has any info on this because it's been a mystery for years
Joe Vogel: I cover this a bit in the book. This may be a piece I explore in more depth later on (ala "Earth Song") along with "Michael McClellan" and "Lost Children." They're all very fascinating.
Question 10: If possible, could you just give us an analysis on Little Susie and Is It Scary? At least give us your opinion on these two songs.
Joe Vogel: Sorry, you'll have to wait for the book. But I do cover them both extensively. Both are very impressive songs that show Michael's artistic versatility.
Question 11: What unreleased material would you be reviewing in his book? Do you give any details about the unreleased/unfinished classical project that Michael was working on?
Joe Vogel: I briefly discuss 5-12 non-album songs per chapter (many of which are songs that have been released in some fashion or leaked). I debated about how to do this because I really wanted the book to focus on what was released officially. But there are some outstanding songs that didn't make it onto his studio albums that I wanted to highlight for the more casual reader ("Streetwalker," "Blue Gangsta," "In the Back," "Do You Know," etc.). I also do discuss the classical project in the final chapter.
Question 12: Will the book cover the album by reviewing each song or talking about the album as a whole? Do you believe MJ's philosophy behind the creation of an album changed as he matured?
Joe Vogel: Each chapter covers the album as a whole (context, how it was made, release, reception, etc.) and then tackles each song individually. I definitely think MJ's philosophy evolved. This began in earnest during the Bad sessions but really revealed itself on Dangerous, which was the first time he acted as executive producer and was in complete control.
Question 13: Will Joe be including information such as the dates on which each song was recorded
Joe Vogel: I include the year each song was recorded and in some cases the month, but at this point, pinning down specific days would have been impossible.
Question 14: What would YOU like to see released during the duration of the MJ Estate/Sony deal?
Joe Vogel: Everything! Obviously, it will be teased out over a long period of time. But the historian impulse in me is simply anxious to see and hear all that Michael was working on. I've been fortunate to hear and see quite a bit, but there is a lot of material the Estate/Sony will be able to release in the future, from the behind-the-scenes footage to demos, to concerts, to drawings... Hopefully, at some point, fans will get to see the footage of "Earth Song" being recorded. I believe it was Matt Forger that told me he recorded Michael singing "Smile" in the studio. I would love to see that.
Question 15: Do you have any future interest in writing more pieces on Michael's music or life? Perhaps his relationship with his fans? Philanthropic activities? And so on.
Joe Vogel: Maybe. I have enough notes, research and interviews to write several more books. But I'll have to see. As much as I am fascinated by Michael Jackson, there are other projects I would like to pursue as well. I may do some more pieces like "Earth Song" though, which don't take as long as a book and allow you to really go deep inside an individual song.
MJJC: What peculiarity of Michael Jackson initially attracted and motivated you to delve into the study of his music? In other words, why did you decided to analyze specifically Michael's work rather than any other artist's work? I guess there are many reasons why you appreciate him, many of them you probably discovered during your work, but I'd like to know exactly what was, so to speak, the trigger
Joe Vogel: Michael Jackson was just so different. I’m fascinated by artists that defy conventions and categories, artists that can take us places we’ve never been before, that challenge us. Michael, of course, paid a terrible price for being bold and different. When I started my book in 2005, the vitriol, hate and deceit being directed at him were awful. If anyone takes a look at media archives from that time, the level of callousness and cruelty is appalling. And I remember watching it unfold and being really angry. At first, I envisioned writing a sort of alternative biography, something more humane and nuanced and objective than what existed at the time, but as the project developed I really felt strongly about letting Michael’s creative work be the focal point and revealing the man through the music.
MJJC: You started writing “Man in the Music” book before Michael's death and we're going to interview him. Did you have questions prepared that you were going to ask Michael, and if yes, can you give a few example questions? Even if you had no questions prepared, what would you have asked Michael if you had the chance?
Joe Vogel: I did have questions prepared. Most were about the process. Michael was always so vague about his creative process. Of course, part of the problem was that so few interviewers ever asked him in-depth questions about his creativity. So my questions were all about details. I wasn’t as interested in sensational questions (how much plastic surgery?) or big questions (how do you want to be remembered?) as specifics (Tell me about these lyrics in “Stranger in Moscow” or this panther segment of “Black or White?). I wanted to show him the chapters I had done so he could see how it was laid out, how it was all about the art, and then proceed from there in terms of filling gaps and gathering new stories.
MJJC: In your last piece "The Top Ten Michael Jackson Songs of All Time" you wrote, "If I were forced to gather together a group of songs to hold up against the best work of the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Prince, these are the ones I would bring." I'd like to know if you were asked to put together an album not for the fans, but for people who do not know Michael Jackson or have never appreciated his music, which songs would you choose to include in this album to make these people know and understand Michael Jackson, the artist and the man, and his music?
Joe Vogel: In a way, that was part of the philosophy of my Top Ten list: What ten songs really showcase Michael’s genius, working in different styles from different parts of his career. But if I were to throw together a mix for a non-fan, I might do: In the Back, Butterflies, Cheater, In the Closet, Give in to Me, Morphine, Stranger, 2Bad, Human Nature, Little Susie, Will You Be There, Threatened. I’d probably go with a lot of lesser-known tracks because part of the problem with Michael Jackson is his classic songs are so familiar many people can’t hear them anymore.
MJJC: What has been the most surprising thing you have learned from your research on Michael Jackson?
Joe Vogel: I don’t know that there is one thing. I was really impressed with the intelligence that went into his work. I loved the stories about him tracking people down, calling in the middle of the night, going to an old folk’s home to visit Walt Disney’s massage therapist, reaching out to all the people he respected or admired. He was so curious, which is such a great quality for an artist.
MJJC: Why do you think so many overlook Michael's work after Thriller/Bad?
Joe Vogel: That’s a very complicated question. Part of it was a backlash to his success, part of it had to do with race, part of it was about his otherness and the media caricature that was constructed. And part of it was just sheer laziness. Critics latched onto a simple narrative—rags to riches to ruins—and couldn’t seem to find the intellectual acuity to move beyond that and recognize the evolution in Jackson’s art.
MJJC: Referring to Michael Jackson's music you often use terms like “he re-invented”. That sounds to me like an attempt to state - somehow - he has been the first to create something new in music while you are conscious that some other, although less publicized, musicians already did that before MJ. Is it correct? And if not, why you say he "reinvented" instead of "invented"?
Joe Vogel: Well, no one creates out of a vacuum so I think I’m sceptical of the term “invention” for any artist. You always draw from what comes before you. Michael didn’t invent R&B or soul or disco, but he stylized these genres in ways that hadn’t been done before. I actually think Michael did, for all intents and purposes, invent “pop” as we know it today; but I think he re-invented it with the Dangerous album. Similarly, I might feel comfortable saying, with qualification, that Michael “invented” modern music videos. Of course, they existed before Michael; but he had an enormously profound impact on what they became.
MJJC: What do you think about those rock journalists who write about “criteria” in music, stating that “innovation” and “influence” are the most important criteria to judge music and according to these criteria don’t consider Michael Jackson an important musician in pop history?
Joe Vogel: Innovation and influence are important criteria, but they are the criteria Michael meets in a major way. Look at the musical landscape today: Michael’s influence is everywhere. That being said, I don’t think Michael Jackson’s greatness is in any way tied to the existence of Justin Bieber, just as the Beatles aren’t assessed by their influence on the Jonas Brothers.
MJJC: Do you think Michael's artistry and his impact on pop culture will be thoroughly examined by more scholars in the future?
Joe Vogel: Absolutely. It’s already happening. There has been a proliferation of scholarship on Jackson over the past few years, including journals and conferences. He’s being taught in many different fields—music, film studies, English, dance, visual studies, cultural studies, African American studies, etc.—at universities around the world.
What seems to be taking a bit more time is serious writing on MJ aimed at a more mainstream audience. This is an audience I have been trying to help build with my books and articles. There are still a lot of people for whom Michael is more of a celebrity or entertainer than a serious artist. It’s strange because Michael has such an enormous fan base, but the audience for this type of work is still relatively small. There is quite a way to go to catch up to the Beatles, or Dylan, or even Springsteen and U2.
MJJC: Were you as frustrated as fans were for Michael being reduced to tabloid caricature, and his music and achievements were basically dismissed? Do you think the tide is turning and people are finally seeing him as a brilliant showman and musician and his music is not dismissible?
Joe Vogel: The tide is definitely turning. There’s been an enormous shift in public perception since 2009. It’s very sad that’s what it took for people to be reminded of his genius, but that’s the way it often goes with artists of his calibre. I had the privilege of being a consultant for the upcoming Bad 25 documentary by Spike Lee and watching that footage was just incredible. The more people are exposed to Michael Jackson, the artist, the more his legacy will thrive.
MJJC: What is your favourite MJ album? Song?
Joe Vogel: My favourites change from month to month, year to year. My favourite album right now is Bad, especially the Bad outtakes and demos. Favourite songs right now: “Destiny,” “Cheater” and “She Drives Me Wild”
MJJC: How are the Stranger in Moscow and Scared Of The Moon pieces you are working on coming along? Do you have any idea when they might be released?
Joe Vogel: Unfortunately, both are on the backburner right now. These types of projects are nearly impossible to find publishers for, so they present a lot of challenges. Most likely I would have to do them independently as I did for “Earth Song.”
MJJC: Who really wrote, "On the line"? Very confusing information Spike Lee said Babyface wrote the song, but Warner/Chappell's website & Ultimate, both list MJ as the writer.
Joe Vogel: My understanding is that it was co-written by Jackson and Babyface.
MJJC: Will you include new chapters in the paperback version of Man in the Music?
Joe Vogel: Umm…probably not new chapters, but definitely new material within existing chapters.
MJJC: After "Featuring Michael Jackson", what should we expect from you (regarding MJ and otherwise)? Do you have any more books about Michael planned? Such as books about Michael’s music videos or unreleased songs? Or even a book about Michael’s personal life?
Joe Vogel: There are endless projects that could be done on Michael (I have a few in mind), but my next major book will be on a different artist. No current plans to write on Michael’s unreleased songs or a biography.
MJJC Note: You can find Amazon links to Joe Vogel's books below and in near future, we will have another Joe Vogel surprise for you all. Keep following us and Joe Vogel
Featuring Michael Jackson: Collected Writings on the King of Pop - http://www.amazon.com/Featuring-Michael-Jackson-Collected-Writings/dp/0981650686
Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson - http://www.amazon.com/Man-Music-Creative-Michael-Jackson/dp/1402779380
Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson's Magnum Opus - http://www.amazon.com/Earth-Song-Inside-Michael-Jacksons/dp/0981650694
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