Thursday, March 1, 2007

Wherein Your Faithful Narrator Rants About Michael Jackson

Let me start off by saying that I'm not a Michael Jackson hater. In fact, he was the first artist I remember really getting into (yeah, me and 2905832405983234 other kids in the eighties). My earliest memories of popular music revolve around listening to my mother's copy of Thriller (which now resides on my record shelf, of course). Granted, I don't pay much attention to his new music. I liked Dangerous when it came out, but I've come to realize it is one of the most dated-sounding records ever released. Even when HIStory came out, I was only able to find 3 songs that I truly enjoyed. I found a used copy of Invincible a few years ago, and didn't even make it through the whole disc.

But I do love that original trilogy of Off the Wall-Thriller-Bad, not to mention the Jackson 5/Jacksons material (well, most of it anyway).

With that established, lets move on to the rant, shall we?

Recently, I downloaded an audio bootleg of a 1996 Michael Jackson concert. Normally I wouldn't even pay attention to such things, but I was mildly curious, and the great thing about the Internet is that you don't have to be discriminating in your choices. I listened to about 15 minutes of it before I regretted having wasted 15 minutes of my life.

Here's the deal: we all know that Michael Jackson lip synchs a hell of a lot, and has for some time. So listening to a 'performance' of a pre-recorded vocal track is pretty useless (taking it to the extreme, his performance of "Stranger and Moscow" seems to be lifted straight from the album, complete with his own backing vocals!). But of course, MJ also sings a handful of his set live. So maybe that would make such a listen worthwhile, right?


His live vocals are fucking atrocious. He's alternately hyperventilating, missing lines, and trying to sing but more accurately grunting what lyrics he can get out. The classic defense is "Oh, but he's doing all of that dancing, so he's out of breath, yatta yatta yatta." Fine, but then a) why bother singing live? Everybody knows he lip synchs half the time anyway; b) I can think of some other very physical performers who sing live just splendidly c) why was he able to pull it off in the old days? He was dancing just as much then (in fact, he's still doing the same damn moves).

Michael Jackson has always been an entertainer first and foremost, a singer second, and a "musician" (HA!) third. Let's face it, he's not much of a musician by any stretch of the imagination (except his). And I think we can safely revoke him of being a talented singer as well. This got me thinking - was MJ's voice always just an overstatement? So I started doing some research. On YouTube.

What I've found is that it seems Michael Jackson *used* to sing live a lot more than he has from 1992 on. I present you with a comparison. The best examples would have been two of the same song, but I opted against it. One of the songs where this is most obvious is "Human Nature," for which I couldn't find a HIStory tour clip. Another is Wanna Be Startin' Something, but with the Bad tour clips I found, I couldn't be sure if he was lip synching or singing live. So here is a flaw in my little study.

Still, the difference is glaring. In not even a decade, his voice has deteriorated immensely. The first clip is from the Bad tour, 1988 - "Working Day and Night." The second is "Wanna Be Startin' Something" from the HISTory tour, 1996. Sifting through the clips I chose "Working" from the Bad tour because the vocal is imperfect - it's clear that he's singing live. But it's still quite good, particularly in comparison to the HIStory performance. Also, these songs are fairly close in tempo and key, so it's not a totally unfair comparison. Actually, I think the HIStory clip is down a notch or two from the album version (this is especially apparent in the guitar solo). Of course, many artists put their songs into different keys as they age so that their performances can still be up to snuff (Stones and Bowie among them). But it didn't do anything to help MJ's case, that's for sure. At any rate, listen to both and compare.

"Working Day and Night" (1988 Bad Tour)

"Wanna Be Startin' Something" (1996 HIStory Tour)

My final analysis: Michael Jackson *did* in fact have a pretty great voice, particularly for the type of music he was recording in the 1970s and 1980s. But the man's voice is shot. Who knows why. Maybe the oxygen in the hyperbaric chamber? Too much Jesus Juice? I don't know.

Hey, you know who can still sing like a mother?


pete said...

Preach brother, Preach!

Matt said...

What's also interesting about the two clips you chose is that in the first, MJ is holding a microphone and in the second he's got the mic attached to his head. Anytime you see someone with the mic attached to their head you know it's a sign that signing has been supplanted by spectacle.

Secondly, your final point is a good one. What's amazing is how good Prince's voice is compared to not just MJ, but to other male R&B singers these days. You can really hear this on the "One Nite Alone" aftershow disc, I think. Compare Musiq's voice to Prince's voice, for instance.

Gonzo said...


Yeah - why is it that the headset seems to be used exclusively by lip synching pop stars? MJ, Janet, Britney, etc. Hm.

I think your second claim might be a bit too bold for me to take, at least as I'm reading it. Prince simply has a great voice, but I'm not willing to discount contemporary r&b singers as a whole (in particular, I'm thinking of Maxwell and D'angelo). Still, Prince's voice is kind of underrated. I guess he's known for his falsetto, but he actually has a very impressive range.