THE MANY VOICES OF MICHAEL JACKSON
On the late singer's 63rd birthday an appreciation of his enduring vocal influence
Michael Jackson would have been sixty-three years old today. He died in 2009. Even before his death his reputation had been damaged by a child molestation trial and, since his passing, a documentary featuring two dancers who accused him of sexual abuse when they were young. Yet his music has lived on. There are twenty-six million monthly listeners to the Michael Jackson artists page on Spotify. A Broadway show based on his life, delayed by Covid-19, is scheduled to open in December. After some initial reluctance by some radio stations to play Jackson’s hits I still hear his classics flowing from car radios on both coasts.
I suspect that Jackson’s music, songs that helped define the ‘70s and ‘80s, and ‘90s, are so deeply embedded in our collective global consciousness it is difficult -- likely impossible – for pop culture to escape/erase/ignore the potency of his performances.
I grew up with the Jackson Five. My family went to see their first headline appearance at Madison Square Garden in 1970. When the phenomenon of ‘Thriller’ made Jackson more than an R&B star, but a global pop icon, I was offered my first book deal, a chance to write a quickie paperback bio to capitalize on his appeal. The writing of that book changed my life, that of my family and actually had an impact on the course of American cinema (profits from it allowed me to invest in Spike Lee’s first feature ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’)
Moreover, it is simply impossible to write any serious consideration of black popular music in the last sixty years without including Michael Jackson’s role as singer, songwriter and star. To ignore him is erase the work on scores of musicians, arrangers and producers who did some of their finest work in tandem with this product of Gary, Indiana. From executives Berry Gordy to Suzanne de Passe, from producer Hal Davis to keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, from producer Quincy Jones to songwriter Siedah Garrett, the list includes many of the most significant figures in R&B history.
For the purposes of identifying the various transitions in vocal styles in pop music in the later part of the 20th century Jackson’s journey is an essential. He was the last great vocalist to be nurtured by Motown’s hitmaking production line. The Jackson’ Five’s initial run of number one singles are all vocal gems and, appropriately, many of them (“ABC,” “Stop! The Love You Save,” “I Want You Back,” “I’ll Be There”) were produced by a team labeled “the Corporation” that included Motown founder Gordy. These tightly arranged, chromatic, hook driven records where cut in Los Angeles, but harked back to the mid-60s mastery of the label’s Detroit golden era.
Under the supervision of Gordy, Hal Davis and other Motown studio pros, the details of Jackson’s vocals (where he stayed true to the melody, where he ad libbed, where his youthful energy bubbled over) were carefully curated. It is this attention to detail, creating the illusion of spontaneity within very tightly arranged song structures, that would continue to be a hallmark of Jackson’s recordings even as the content of his material grew more mature and, sometimes, ominous.
If young Michael Jackson was the last product of the fabled production line, teenaged MJ was a student of the Motown’s post-graduate school of voacls run by label elders Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Starting with ‘What’s Going On’ Gaye developed a multi-tracked recording technique that exploited a wide range of vocal textures that, depending on the song, turning himself into a sorrowful choir or a sensual doo top group. Employing a pleading falsetto, a sexy tenor and a gospel growl, Gaye established a new modern template for layering voices, a blend of studio technology and inspiration that impacts vocalists to this day. Jackson was one of Gaye’s greatest discipline.
From Wonder, Jackson learned to sing flowing melodic lines that weren’t as chromatic as the Motown sound and had room for quirky changes, jazz chords, and unexpected twists. As a singer Wonder has the ability to be romantic, silly, sentimental and preachy, moving from persona to persona with ease. Wonder’s ability to “act” out character’s in his songs would be replicated by Jackson as he matured.
When Jackson started writing and co-producing his own material with his brothers (the Jacksons’ 1978 ‘Destiny’ and 1980 ‘Triumph’) he’d developed a distinctive take on vocalizing that showcased his own idiosyncrasies. “This Place Hotel” on ‘Triumph,’ his first recorded solo composition, introduces a paranoid, dread filled approach that would became a staple of his singing (“Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “They Don’t Really Care About Us”) as much his more benign signatures “Shum On!” or “Hee Hee.”
The production on “This Place Hotel” towers above the rest of the material on the Jackson’s album, featuring a rhythmic guitar solo, dramatic brass arrangement, and a chamber music coda. These accents set the stage for the theatrical flourishes of his solo albums. The trilogy of ‘Off the Wall,’ ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad,’ all produced by and with Quincy Jones and engineered by the late Bruce Swedien, offer ample evidence of Jackson’s vocal mastery as he employs a wide array of vocal strategies, all designed to communicate vulnerability and emotional intimacy. In his historic trilogy Jackson pulls all the threads of old school soul singing, along with the innovations of Gaye and Wonder, to create a new template that would impact the generation of Usher, Timberlake and Maxwell. If Jackson’s vocal influence stopped there it would have been immense. But it’s what happened after ‘Bad’ leads us, not just to ‘90s new jack swing, but to the R&B present where Drake’s “singing” becomes viable.
It was Jackson, child of Motown, “King of Pop”, who would begin the hammering away at R&B’s old melodic staples and create a space for rapper/singers. In 1979, with ‘Off the Wall,’ Jackson absorbed disco and created his own fusion. In 1992 he hi-jacked the current R&B trend and hired new jack swing creator Teddy Riley to make that transition. The big hit from the ‘Dangerous’ album was “Remember the Time,” which marries Riley’s trademark crunchy rhythms to a sing-a-along melody that carried a lovey dove lyric.
But the most important song on ‘Dangerous’ is “Jam.” Back when Rod Temperton, the composer of “Rock With Me” and “Thriller,” first started working with Jackson he noticed the singer’s extraordinary facility for singing, short percussive notes, so he’d focused on creating melodies that incorporated staccato rhythms. With “Jam” Michael and Teddy, along with collaborators Swedien and songwriter Rene Moore, pushed this technique so far we can now see it as a precursor of 21st century R&B. On the verses of “Jam” Jackson spews words across the track like an assault rifle in a ferociously controlled vocal that was as close to rapping as any mainstream vocalist had come. The glib tongued Heavy D, rhymes on the bridge with his typical deep voiced dexterity, but it is Jackson’s clipped, emotionally charged cadences that drive the song.
This chopped up approach to melody would be refined by the coming generation of artists and songwriters, products of both Jackson and hip hop. Though Jackson would never totally abandon the longer melody lines of his youth, his inheritors on pop radio would compose songs written with with quarter and eight notes, and utilizing a narrow vocal range. If singers like Gaye had emulated saxophonist before, a new wave now sang like a drummer tapping cymbals.
It’s one reason that the melodies of so many hit songs of the last thirty years can sound constrained to folks raised on a wider sonic palate. The near rap cadence of “They Don’t Really Care About Us” and numerous tracks on his later albums ‘History’ and ‘Invincible’ are Jackson’s interpretation of the space hip hop freed for black male anger, which he overlaid with the sense of personal grievance that permeated his later music.
As I observed earlier, starting with “This Place Hotel,” Jackson regularly trafficked in paranoia. Not only are “Bille Jean” and ”Wanna Be Startin’ Something” two of the singer’s greatest recordings, they are windows into Jackson’s sense of feeling damaged by rumor and innuendo. After the child molestation accusations gained stream, overshadowing Jackson’s musical career, his sense of being under seize grew and were reflected in vocals were almost punk in their petulance. Where the vehement rappers of the ‘90s were often a product of crack era violence, this was the sound of Jackson’s unleashed inner rage.
Beyonce’, who grew up with both Jackson’s thirst for icon status and under the influence of hip hop, has perfected the chopped approach that “Bad.” The big bang was Destiny’s Child’s “No No No (Part 2),” a remix by Wyclef Jean, who had a stroke of inspiration: “What if I can have Beyonce’ sing in the double timing almost as if she’s rhyming? Like the dudes (MCs) from Texas at the time.” Because he was a hip-hop product with real musical skills, Jean was able to walk Beyonce’ through the opening Jackson had made. Subsequently in her songwriting, and that of her myriad collaborators, Beyonce’s long string of hits perfected this quarter note style, making it the new R&B normal.
Over the course of the last twenty-five years this chopped, almost rapping singing delivery completely blurred the line between singer and MC. While Beyonce’ came at it from the vocal side, non-singing singers from Jah Rule to Andre 3000 to 50 Cent, have redefined the art of the pop song. It is this era while Drake, aided by auto-tune and supported by a musical culture where long melodic lines (and even bridges) are passe’, is the premier “love man” of the 21st century, having shed “pure” hip hop for an incredibly commercially successful formula. If Drake claimed he was the 21st century’s “King of Pop” it wouldn’t be a stretch.
Whether you celebrate or bemoan this musical evolution is defined by your age and taste. Jackson, who was a true student of the game, would likely have tried Auto Tune, not as a full-time thing, but just to master it as he did so many developments from the ‘60s onward.
When I think of Jackson’s mastery I often reflect on his performance of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You.” First recorded by the Miracles in 1960, Jackson was eleven when he cut it with the Jackson Five as the B side to “I Want You Back” in ’69. It’s a love song of adult regret and yearning, feelings way beyond the grasp of any child. However, Jackson rises to the song’s challenge. Though the A side went to number one, it’s this B side performance, soulful, flashy and precise, that decades later draws me back.