Butterflies, a reflection on Michael Jackson’s brilliance…

by Marcus K. Dowling

Michael Jackson is a musical genius. Those words are fact and will never be disputed. And of all the wonders that his genius unleashed upon the universe, none, to this author, may be more beautiful than his last major impactful sonic treatise, “Butterflies,” from 2001’s Invincible. At the time of Invincible‘s release, it must be duly noted that Michael Jackson was anything but. For the last eight years, his good name had been besmirched, and the artist went from beloved legend to punchline for jokes by hack comics worldwide. Invincible went to #1 on the Billboard charts in the US as an album in spite of all of this, of course, as Jackson is universally beloved by just as many, or in some cases, the same people that lampoon him, but certainly the album’s status was more a tribute to the man instead of any thought by the average music listener that the artist was attempting to further his musical career.

As mentioned, trapped on this album is the songmaster’s final cause celebre, “Butterflies.” Written by former Floetry member Marsha Ambrosious four years earlier in 1997 as a tale of unrequited teenage infatuation, Michael Jackson wraps a sinuous falsetto around these lyrics in such a way that they don’t just tug at heartstrings, they pull them, and loose and open the heart to the message, creating melodies that evoke the passion, yearning and meaning within. Ambrosious, at that time, was easily one of the top five songwriters in ALL of music at that point, Floetry’s debut album with “Say Yes” and “Floetic” as two epic cuts of that era, accentuated with strings and sweetening, are just true standouts. But “Butterflies,” well, that’s just once in a lifetime brilliance.

Jackson takes a song that when recorded by Floetry is simply amazing, but, with his graduated knowledge of vocal inflection and emphasis, creates emotions hard to qualify in recorded sound. At the first chorus, you hear the sound of the very moment as a lovestruck teen when you cross from hoping to like, to hoping to love, to knowing the situation is futile to having a broken heart, but holding on to hope because knowing the other, the unrequited love, is pain too great to want to feel. As anyone who has felt it knows, it’s all one feeling, just like that, and Jackson, in “Butterflies,” creates that hopeless tumult with note perfect perfection.

It takes the same child that ironically belts out the grown man blues tale “Who’s Lovin’ You” to do this. It takes the dreamer that sang “Ben” to do this. It takes the same man that argues love with Paul McCartney in “The Girl is Mine” to do this. It takes the man that charms his way through “Lady in My Life” and “You Are Not Alone” to do this. It takes the man that contemplates the ties that bind and assuages the heart that breaks in “She’s Out of My Life.” It takes the man that sings both “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” to do this. “Butterflies” completes the love saga that Michael Jackson laid out in his magical career. For a man who lived his life in many ways as a tale of unrequited love, as a living definition of hope in the face of heartache and heartbreak, hear “Butterflies,” feel “Butterflies,” know “Butterflies.” Above all his other hits, Michael, to me, is a maestro of love, and this is the master’s final and greatest stroke of genius.

In death, find life. Long live the King.

  • Faith

    That was nice but Marsha’s version is better. She said on Twitter even Michael preferred it, but of course it was still excellent.

  • Rivers Bend

    I don’t think I saw this when you wrote it in 2009, but I’m reading it now and appreciating that there are a few intelligent people out there that know that some if not most of Michael Jackson’s greatest work was done well after Thriller and even after his self-described “swift and sudden fall from grace.” Maybe that made him even better though that seems hardly possible. He continued to evolve and never lost the passion and fire, never got complacent. As you note, he got to a whole ‘nother level of expressing complex emotions with depth and knowing…and did it so beautifully…all while the world focused on the wrong, and incorrect, things about him.

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