‘Face Time: Michael Jackson, “On the Line”

Written by 'Face Time, Music

Join Popdose for a look back at three decades of Babyface’s wide-ranging influence as a singer, songwriter, and producer.

Babyface turns 30 this year. Sure, the Man Who Would Be Babyface — Kenneth Edmonds — was born in 1959, but the singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around hit maker extraordinaire began taking baby steps up the Billboard charts the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated every chart. Join Robert Cass, Jeff Giles, and Mike Heyliger as they take a look back at the first three decades of Babyface’s career, with various detours along the stream of consciousness.

“On the Line” by Michael Jackson [Amazon / iTunes] (written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Michael Jackson; produced by Edmonds; from Limited Edition Minimax CD, 1997, and The Ultimate Collection, 2004)

Robert: As we approach August 29, what would have been Michael Jackson’s 55th birthday, we conclude our ‘Face Time salute to MJ and his multitalented family with a song that appears in the opening minutes of Spike Lee’s 1996 film Get on the Bus but not on its soundtrack album.

Spike kept Michael off that bus for some reason — black-on-black racism is sad, y’all — but the song finally made an appearance on CD a year later on the imaginatively titled UK release Limited Edition Minimax CD, a spin-off of the “Deluxe Collector Box Set” of Ghosts, which itself was a repackaging of Michael’s 1997 Blood on the Dance Floor mini-album. And when “On the Line” appeared on his four-disc The Ultimate Collection seven years after that, Jacko suddenly had a cowrite credit on the song, though Babyface was listed as the sole writer on the original release.

Jeff: The musical bed sounds like pure Babyface. “On the Line” is another ‘Face Time song that could be rerecorded and dropped right onto a ‘Face record. The vocal melody is also 100 percent ‘Face; Michael drops some of his trademark tics, but it’s interesting to me that otherwise his personality is pretty much totally subsumed into this song’s ‘Faceness. It isn’t bad for what it is, but it sounds more like a “work for hire” than any other MJ song I can remember listening to.

Mike: I wonder how come it didn’t make it onto the Get on the Bus soundtrack album or at least get issued as a single.

Jeff: Same here. Perhaps Michael wasn’t happy with it.

Mike: It’s not a bad song. But you’re right, Jeff, it’s Babyface-by-numbers. So weird to hear an MJ song without “the essence of MJ” (whatever that is).

Jeff: It’s as if Michael’s actively trying to sound like Babyface. If someone were to tell me he wrote “On the Line” as an exercise to prove he could out-Babyface Babyface, I’d believe it.

Robert: The song was included on the Get the Bus soundtrack’s promo CD and was reportedly submitted “for your consideration” for a Best Original Song Oscar, so I don’t know why it was pulled from the actual soundtrack album. Spike ‘n’ Mike had worked together earlier in 1996 when the former directed both of the latter’s videos for “They Don’t Care About Us”: one was filmed in the slums, or favelas, of Brazil, the other in an American prison. (Spike also directed the 2012 documentary Bad 25.)

That Limited Edition Minimax CD also contains remixes of songs Jackson cowrote with Teddy Riley and — obligatory ‘Face Time mention coming up! — Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Mike: I’ve never even heard of that Minimax CD. I also like saying the word “Minimax.”

… Minimax.

Jeff: If there’s a Michael Jackson release that Mike Heyliger’s never heard of, I’m tempted to believe it doesn’t actually exist. Robert, did you record this song? Perhaps with Terje’s help? ‘Fess up.

Robert: Mike, you obviously didn’t do enough CD shopping in Europe in the late ’90s. And I promise I wasn’t in the studio that day back in ’96, but let’s ask Terje if he has an alibi. Terje?

Terje: What do you think the T in “Mousse T’s Radio Rock Singalong Remix” stands for?? I like that “Babyface-by-numbers” makes you guys think of me.

Robert: Wow, Jeff was right! And “Babyface-by-numbers” is a compliment, Terje. After all, his name was by the number one quite a bit in the ’90s. (See what I did there? Gold.)

Mike: Why is that guy sitting on a set of testicles?

Robert: In the ’90s you had to have a pair that big if you planned to say no to any of Michael’s oddball requests. By the way, Terje, I really enjoyed your “Mousse T Acoustic” remix of Simply Red’s “Your Eyes” (1999). Actually, “really enjoyed” is overstating the case, but it is really cool to know someone with elephantiasis.

Mike: Discogs categorizes Michael Jackson’s music as “blues rock”?

Robert: You’re questioning Discogs.com’s “style” designations? Well well, somebody’s gotten a little big for his britches.

Michael Jackson had so much clout back in the day that he was able to get the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughan to play on that box set of Ghosts and, specifically, “On the Line,” though Vaughan’s guitar solo was ultimately cut. (As you can see, ‘Face had also gotten too big for his britches, and not because of elephantiasis.)

Jeff: Wait, wait, wait. This song originally had a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar track pasted in? The longer this conversation continues, the more I feel like you’re just fucking with me.

Mike: Don’t mind Robert. The air is a little thin in Chicago.

Robert: Yes, I’m kidding about the Vaughan solo. But the Limited Edition Minimax CD is real, as is “Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks,” who sound like a swell bunch of people, so I’m sure they’ll appreciate this completely positive appraisal of Jackson’s gifts as a singer, songwriter, entertainer, and twice-married virgin— sorry, forget that last part. Slip of the keyboard. My bad. (Who’s bad?) Word to the badd!! (Nicely done. You’re on fire today.) Thanks, me! (Anytime …)

For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface. And if you’re a member of Spotify, check out the ‘Face Time playlist here.