What is the significance of Michael Jackson's song "Human Nature"?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It’s been my dream ... to somehow unite people ... through love and music. It is important to reach people, to move them.  Sometimes one can do this with the mosaic of the music melody arrangement and lyrics, sometimes it is the intellectual content of the lyrics. (Michael Jackson, Moonwalk)

The significance of “Human Nature” by Michael Jackson might be thought of as twofold: as a part of Thriller and for its existential message. It is important though to first establish that Jackson disowned any autobiographical relation to “Human Nature” though individuals do often make parallels despite Jacksons disavowal of any autobiographical elements. The song was one of several composed by members of the band Toto and offered to Quincey Jones for consideration for placement on Jackson’s soon-to-be-released Thriller album. Quincey Jones selected “Human Nature” for Michael to sing and to include on Thriller not for biographical similarities or resonance with Jackson’s life and experience but rather for the resonating question “Why?” and for the powerful ballad melody, which both Jones and Jackson thought a superlative melody.

“Human Nature” as Part of Thriller

One aspect of significance for “Human Nature” is that it was part of the award winning, critically acclaimed, paradigm shifting album Thriller. Music videos, as they have come to be known, were a relatively new technological development when Jackson recorded Thriller. In historic point of fact, music videos called “Soundies” were in existence and high in popularity from 1940 to 1946. Soundies were videos of singers and dancers that played from mini-jukeboxes that were attached to tables in cafes, bars and restaurants. For a nickel, you could select a favorite song by a favorite big band artist and watch performances right there on your tabletop. Soundies were the predecessors of contemporary videos, and Michael Jackson initiated a music industry paradigm shift by including music videos as part of his album and by using music videos to develop stories within the songs “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” It is interesting to note that, despite the magnitude of success garnered by Thriller, Jackson came to renounce further promotion of the album after fans and leaders of his religion made known their displeasure at being frightened and offended:

'I would never do it again!” says Jackson. “I just intended to do a good, fun short film, not to purposely bring to the screen something to scare people or to do anything bad. I want to do what’s right. I would never do anything like that again. … Because a lot of people were offended by it,.... That makes me feel bad. ... I realize now that it wasn’t a good idea. I’ll never do a video like that again! … In fact, I have blocked further distribution of the film over which I have control, including its release in some other countries. ... I tell them, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to do anything on Thriller. No more Thriller.’” (Watchtower ! qtd on Wikipedia)

Record Breaking Statistics for Thriller

  • It was included in the National Film Preservation Board's National Film Registry of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films."

  • It had between 55 and 65 million copies sold worldwide.

  • It had 29 million copies shipped in the United States alone, tying the previous best-selling album record held by the Eagles’ for Their Greatest Hits(1971–1975).

  • It set a record in 1984 for winning eight Grammy Awards, including for Album of the Year.

Thriller Breaking Racial Barriers and Developing Narrative

“Human Nature” is further significant for its association with Thriller because Thriller allowed Jackson to break down racial barriers in the pop (popular) music field. The relatively young MTV declined to air Jackson’s Thriller music videos, specifically “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” The President of Jackson’s record label, Walter Yetnikoff of CBS Records, threatened MTV with public exposure of racialism: “[I’m going to] tell them about the fact you don't want to play music by a black guy.” MTV prudently reconsidered--since it was 1982 and long after the Civil Rights Act--and aired first “Billie Jean,” then later “Beat It.” The financial success of their decision is shown in the Guinness World Records 2006 listing accrediting “Billie Jean” as the "most successful music video." The fantastic rate at which the videos were shown on MTV and at which Thriller was being purchased for home viewing propelled the “watershed” moment during which Jackson created the future potential of music videos by combining “filmmaking” technique with “music” (Today Entertainment, MSNBC). The full-blown development of the narrative storylines in “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” with music and singing supported by dancing and acting, created the paradigm shift from music video to music narrative video.

“Human Nature” Significance as Existential Message

“Human Nature” was composed by Steve Porcaro of Toto, with additional lyrics added by John Bettis. It was the final track added to Thriller as a result of “Carousel” being removed from the album by Quincey Jones. Toto is noted for ambiguous existential lyrics, that is lyrics that do not have completely clear meanings, i.e., ambiguous, and that implicitly question the purpose and meaning of life, i.e., existential. Two examples of this are “Africa” and “Modern Eyes”:

“Africa” by Toto

I stopped an old man along the way

Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies

He turned to me as if to say: "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"


Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become


It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you

There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do

I bless the rains down in Africa

Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

This suggests that since “Human Nature” is written by one of the principal composers of Toto, and since Toto has made a trademark of ambiguous existential lyrics, then it is not surprising if the lyrics of “Human Nature” are similarly ambiguous and existential. Indeed there are elements of the lyrics of “Human Nature” that seem to make no sense yet can be analyzed from the perspective of an existential query or statement. Here follows a brief analysis.

Analysis of “Human Nature”

Hear her voice

Shake my window

A great city is the “she” of this stanza: The city beckons the singer to its wide-awake streets where it alluringly “winks a sleepless eye.”

Four walls won’t hold me tonight

If this town

Is just an apple …

The singer is enticed by the allure of the wakeful nighttime city--clearly identified as New York through the allusion to an “apple,” New York’s nickname is “Big Apple”--and feels the need of free space outside of secure but confining walls.

Then let me take a bite

This metaphoric idiom means that the singer wants to enjoy the delicious pleasures of the city; remember that the city is “she.”


If they say -

"Why? Why?" Tell ‘em that it's human nature.”

"Why, why does he do me that way?"

If they say -

"Why? Why?" Tell ‘em that it's human nature.”

"Why, why does he do me that way?"

I like livin’ this way

Here is the most puzzling section. It begins by suggesting a hypothetical conversation: “If they say - “ The most puzzling line is: “Why, why does he do me that way?” Who is he and who is me?

This line must be understood as the intrusion of a second voice in the hypothetical conversation, and the intrusion must be seen as the voice responding with a question “Why?” which is addressed to the last remark made by the singer: “Then let me take a bite?”: Why do you want to take a bite?

In an ambiguous and existential, though hypothetical, conversation [hypothetical, “If they say …”] about the singer’s motivation for taking “a bite” out of life--which can be analyzed as meaning taking a chance to live life at its fullest--the city (“she”) asks why it is being taken advantage of (having a bite taken out of).

Apparently, the personified city isn’t pleased to be used for all-night pleasures under always-lit lights. The singer gives the dualistic reply that the motivation for living fully (1) is human nature: it is human nature to want to live to the fullest, and the motivation (2) is that living is what the singer likes to do--he likes to live fully even if it means living in the throbbing city in the otherwise sleeping night.

From the tone (wonderment, eagerness), diction (high, poetic) and vocabulary (winks, sweet, apple, touch, heart, etc) of the lyrics, it cannot be argued that this is a defense of abusive and destructive nightlife (though it may offer a simplistic explanation of such choices) but must be argued that the nightlife sung about is that of engaging laughter, amusement, joy, energy and human interaction.

Electric eyes are ev’rywhere

These are the lights of the night of the city: sign lights, street lights, house lights, car lights, taxi cab lights: all the lights like electric eyes of the wide awake, living, streets of the city.

Existential Significance

When “Human Nature” is analyzed and understood in this way, as an existential statement (a comment about the existence--the purpose, meaning, motivation--of human life), its significance within the total ensemble comprising Thriller is recognized as that of revealing an aspect of the meaning of life: it is human nature to live to the fullest (though without justification for abusive and destructive living).

Additional Source:

Michael Jackson, "Moonwalk," Wikipedia.