Friday, June 25, 2010

To Err is Human

A three-year old drifts off to sleep in her mother's bed, watching moonlight seep in through a rift in the curtains. A wooden face-plated clock radio with lavender backlighting and fading yellow digits traipses onward…10:01…10:02…Though it's barely a whisper, the radio's heart is beating. Undertones climb up the bottom register before they fall back down to try all over again; fighting to break free of some unseen restraint. Then a man cries "why" into the darkness…into the baby's dreams.

Reaching out, I touch her shoulder; I'm dreaming of the street.

I didn't know what that song was until I was 14 years old. Driving in the car one night with my mother, I asked her, singing the haunting rift that had stuck in my mind all those years. She gave me the name of the song and though I was ecstatic that it was a Michael Jackson tune, I obstinately told her she was probably wrong. I don't remember anything about "human nature." And what a lame name for such a great song. When we got home, I reluctantly pulled out our Thriller LP and looked at the track listing. There it was. Side two: track three. I instantly fell in love again and promised to never let it's identity slip from my memory.

Even at 14, I didn't understand why that song still shook me to the core 11 years later. Lying on the floor of my living room, I slurred over the verses, barely catching the ending rhymes "begins to beat…dreaming of the street." I didn't really care what he was saying either. I was just so happy to be reunited. Nostalgia evocatively washed over me. I cried.

To attempt to discern its meaning, I'd turn to Human Nature like an odd puzzle piece. If my mother yelled at me, I'd play it. If a fickle teenage romance soured, I'd turn it on. Abstruse teen angst? iTunes. This really didn't help my quest. The song always soothed me. Now, 7 years later, I get it. They have been 7 tumultuous years, but at least I get it.

The funny thing is, the song itself really doesn't give a good explanation of what human nature is. Imagine you're Michael Jackson's girlfriend (or if that's too much, someone else you really love). Here you are being faithful, loving him completely, and he just won't love you back the way you think you ought to be loved. You have no idea WHY he is doing this to you. You beat yourself up at night trying to find answers. You press him for answers and seem to push him further away. You can't understand why when the daytime comes he's distant, because every night you fall asleep in his arms and the world seems right to you. Finally, the time comes when things are in shambles and there's nothing to hold onto anymore. You ask "why?" And he shrugs and says regretfully "it's human nature. I like living this way." Michael just hit you with the beloved platitude "it's not you, it's me."

But Human Nature is so much more than a man married to a dream that doesn't happen to include the woman he's currently with. The man singing the song is also searching for the answers to the questions he's being asked. For anyone who's ever looked at Michael Jackson and not fully understood him (which is about 99.99% of the population) I think he explained himself in this "ballad" quite plainly. "Let me answer your question with another question," he proposes, "why do any of us do what we do to begin with?" *kanyeshrug* Some outside force is pulling him away from his current station, and to answer this call will unintentionally devastate the people who depend on him. We all constantly hurt one another, without meaning to, in pursuit of seemingly selfish dreams.

I don't think that's too complicated to understand. So why is Human Nature able to elegiacally transcend it's simple message? The music. That Sisyphean synthesized bass that either resets itself or tumbles further down the register only to regroup itself and come back; that pervasive organ-synth motif that maintains its rhythm no matter which key it transforms into; the steady tick of the percussive instruments; the simple melody of the verses merely attempting to break free at the end of the musical phrase; all these elements are as repressive as the four walls that Michael yearns to be rid of. And then he does it--sort of. His voice soars over and above, not daring to look back. The midrange guitar flies with him, albeit at a lower altitude, catching high notes on the breeze of Michael's feather-weight timbre. Up and down they race, the sheer will of his tenor piercing sonic space in a direction that had been restricted before. It seems his voice has flown around the world and back in search of an answer to the question, but the notes bring him back down to reality every time, empty handed.

And it's because the music has exactly the right tension that Human Nature was able to console me through any hardship. It's for anyone that is constantly restless, or living a lifestyle that seems innate but unfulfilling…anytime you know you have to let someone down in order to satisfy a hunger, or if you've ever had to break away from the established norm to feel comfortable with yourself…and of course if you've been on the receiving end of any of these situations. Human Nature (the song and ideology) is a lesson about incomplete moral reciprocity. And reciprocity is the basis for all human interaction.

So am I digging a little too deep here for meaning that isn't there? Maybe, but I don't think so. You don't give a song a 'dumb' title like "Human Nature" unless you actually think you can capture the essence of human nature in 4 minutes. And if there's anyone who could've done it, it was Michael Jackson. A year has passed and I still don't think I've begun to cope with what the world lost 365 days ago. But at least we can share these kinds of stories with each other.

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