I recently picked up The Essential Michael Jackson, two discs of his music, from the Jackson 5 up until his later recordings. I went walking with a good set of head phones and spend about two hours listening to his music—primarily from Off the Wall to his later hits in the 90s. In this thread, I hope to talk about the music on these recordings and maybe a bit of Michael Jackson as a singer. (I’m not really interested in discussing the more sensational aspects of his life, so if we could stick to the music, I’d appreciate that.) Let me add a few thoughts off the top of my head:
>The musicians, arrangements and production (I guess that’s the right term) are all really terrific—especially in Off the Wall and Thriller. (The playing and arrangements go down a bit over time, imo.)
>I think the rhythm section is more interesting on these earlier albums, especially the bass line and guitar parts. The later songs seem to rely a bit more on keyboards and less interesting bass lines.
>Jackson’s voice is pretty amazing. He has both a clarity and power to his singing, but there’s also this guttural, raunchy sound—the kind that I hear in other “rock n’ roll” singers—from Little Richard, Janis Joplin, to name, two.
What do people think about the music and his singing?
His talent in his prime was undeniable and this is coming from a rock fan who has a general aversion to most pop music. Likewise, as someone who has little affinity for disco, Off the Wall remains the best disco album I’ve ever heard. Thriller speaks for itself, but the perfection of the format reached with Billie Jean is somewhat stunning (credit needs to go to Quincy Jones as well.)
“>The musicians, arrangements and production (I guess that’s the right term) are all really terrific—especially in Off the Wall and Thriller. (The playing and arrangements go down a bit over time, imo.)”
Yeah, like Brad says, if you want to talk about that, the credit is mostly due to Quincy Jones.
“I recently picked up The Essential Michael Jackson, two discs of his music, "
You still buy CDs?
I also had the impression that Quincy Jones deserved most of the credit, but when I read the credits, I noticed that Jerry Hey did the horn arrangements, which was an interesting part of the albums. (I can’t remember if Seawind horns played on this as well.) The musicians also deserve credit as well (members of Brothers Johnson and Toto, Seawind, among others). In any event, the “orchestration” and arrangement of the music (including people talking, various sound effects—in addition to the conventional instrumentation) is pretty dang good. Maybe Quincy Jones deserves credit for that.
Ari: You still buy CDs?
Oh yeah—especially used. (I got this one for $8.)
“members of Brothers Johnson”
Yeah, the Brothers Johnson are great. This is a fantastic song (although the original Shuggie Otis version is even better).
If you want to own MJ, you should just pick up Thriller and Off the Wall on vinyl. Easy to find for $1 each. Then again, I still own my copy of Thriller I got when I was a kid. I think it was the first record I owned.
Yeah, Jones definitely deserves a significant share of the credit for those two albums (incidentally, the two decided to work together in the studio after they met both working on Lumet’s The Wiz), particularly Off the Wall. Mike had gotten stronger-willed in the studio by the time they did Thriller.
Jackson wrote a lot of his own songs, but yes, his best songs were collaborations with Quincy.
Off The Wall and Thriller are great, Bad is decent, and so is Dangerous. Invincible is not as bad as its reputation suggests, but it was a huge letdown after all that time. History is just rubbish to me.
I still buy cd’s too.
“I still buy cd’s too.”
I’ll only buy them directly from the artists at concerts – I like supporting musicians directly. Otherwise, it’s vinyl or downloads. Then again, I don’t see many concerts any more.
^^I don’t want to pay for mp3’s. and vinyl to me is a last resort.
Cd is still the dominant format, at least in terms of sales, despite all the talk of its death, and i’ll continue to buy them until they stop making them.
“(members of Brothers Johnson and Toto, Seawind, among others)”
and Eddie Van Halen :)
^^^On the subject of Eddie Van Halen, i really want to hear their new album with Roth. i’m not expecting much, and the single was pretty crap, but still, its a brand new album of material! the first since 1998!
Hope it’s better than Van Halen III (and, for that matter, that cover album Roth released several years ago). I have my doubts, though.
Dangerous is my personal favorite. Invincible isn’t bad at all, but as Joks suggests, it was a big letdown after the six years between albums. The album is way too long, and songs like You Are My Life and The Lost Children seem redundant. I love the first three tracks of History, from then on its very hit and miss (can’t stand You Are Not Alone and Childhood, but love Tabloid Junkie and Little Susie).
Bad is one I never really got around to, it might be MJ’s most consistant album, but behind all the studio mastery, he’s not really trying anything new, as he did on Thriller and Dangerous.
Off the Wall and Thriller at this point I think speak for themselves.
By the way, the instrumentation of Billie Jean is all MJ. Jackson tried to get a producer credit on the album for that just one song, but for whatever reason was denied it. Quincy, believe it or not, didn’t want to put the track on the album, and when Jackson insisted, Quincy wanted to cut the intro.
I believe something of a similar nature happened with Smooth Criminal on Bad (my favorite track on that album IMO).
MATT: At the very least it will be better than that record! III was abysmal! Cherone was a really bad fit. Either way, i have the same expectations for the new V.H as i do for the upcoming Sabbath with Ozzy—providing that Iommi recovers fast enough to record it—-as long as it’s better than the last pieces of shit they released—-‘III’ and ‘Forbidden’ respectively—then i’m fine with it.
I just don’t want either band to end their careers on duds. IT’s also interesting that V.H new album will not be released through Warner, the label they were signed to since the beginning of their recording history in the late 70’s, right through until 2011.
NEIL: Agree with you on Dangerous. It’s easy to accuse Jackson of hopping on the new jack swing bandwagon, but he really made it his own, and his vocal work on that album is superb, and was very influential on future R+B crossover artists. ‘Who Is It’ is constantly noted by artists in ithe field as an influential and great song.
As for Invincible, according to producers that worked on the record, like Darkchild etc, Jackson left most of the best material off the album, but nobody had the balls to tell him, for obvious reasons.
“By the way, the instrumentation of Billie Jean is all MJ.”
Do you mean the arrangements, Neil? Because, I don’t have the actual album credits in front of me, but the song Wiki lists:
Greg Phillinganes: Rhodes, synthesizer
Greg Smith: Synthesizer
Bill Wolder: Synthesizer, synthesizer programming
Dean Parks: Guitar
Louis Johnson: Bass
N’dugu Chancler: Drums
Michael Boddicker: Emulator
Vocal, rhythm and synthesizer arrangement by Michael Jackson
String arrangement by Jerry Hey
Strings conducted by Jeremy Lubbock
Ah yes, Matt, you’re right. I meant the arrangements.
Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing about Darkchild claiming the best material was left off the album. One wonders why it was left off the (mostly) abmysal album Michael. By the way, to anyone who has heard the Michael album, do you think the Cascio tracks use Jackson’s voice? I for one, think they do, but no production can hide the fact that they’re simply demo’s, and the lyrics sound unfinished. It’s pretty telling that the best tracks on the album (with or without new production) are the only ones that were fully complete by the time of Jacksons death (Best of Joy, Behind the Mask, and Much Too Soon). I dig Hollywood Tonight, though it’s clearly unfinished, and apparently the spoken bridge in the song replaces an actual bridge that Michael had written but never recorded.
I think Dangerous is his most mature album in terms of songwriting, musicanship, and as a vocalist. There is some mild corn there (Black or White, Heal the World) but songs like Who Is It and Will You Be There show Michael at the peak of his songwriting ability, tracks like Jam, In the Closet and She Drives Me Wild are virtuoso funk workouts, the sincerity of Keep the Faith beats any of Michael’s “save the world” ballads (in my opinion), and Give In To Me is one of Michael’s finest pieces of vocal work.
The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music
The article brings up racism as a factor, which surprised me a little, as when I was growing up he was so ubiquitous. (Indeed, by the end of the 80s, I was pretty sick of his music as it was played so much on the radio and MTV/VH1.)
This excerpt also surprised me a little:
_When I began my book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, in 2005, there wasn’t one serious book focused on Jackson’s creative output. Indeed, at my local Barnes & Noble, I could find only two books about him, period. Both dealt with the scandals and controversies of his personal life.
In some ways, this isn’t too surprising as many Americans don’t seem to be really interested in understanding music and what makes it good—so the more sensational and controversial aspects of Jackson’s life will draw more attention. On the other hand, I would think music critics and historians would actually have interest in analyzing his music and art.
“by the end of the 80s, I was pretty sick of his music as it was played so much on the radio and MTV/VH1”
Yeah, the argument the author is making is a little silly. No artist was as visible in the ‘80s, and as for “many Americans don’t seem to be really interested in understanding music and what makes it good”—I’m assuming he’s smart enough to have read (or at least be aware of) the abundance of excellent American writing on classical, jazz, blues, rock, and other forms of music, so maybe he meant to say “many fans of Jackson’s music don’t seem to be really interested in understanding music and what makes it good”—a statement that is still problematic but perhaps a bit more defensible.
I like his phrasing and interest in the violence of the dance.
Anger and innocene merge in just about all of his stuff.
His new stuff is just as good as his old (You are Night Alone, and They Don’t Care About Us are as good as it gets) it just doesn’t get the coverage, all that said
in terms of ambigious pop singers of that period Prince was a bit better
a bit ^ ironic that everyone thought prince was the ‘dangerous’ one
Yeah, the argument the author is making is a little silly.
Right. To be fair, though, some of the points he raises (the amount of cover appearances on Rolling Stone magazine, etc.) did give me pause. There’s no denying Jackon’s popularity, but my impression is that critics and more sophisticated music fans don’t seem to give him praise. For example, a lot of jazz musicians will openly and effusively talk about Stevie Wonder, James Brown or Marvin Gaye, but I don’t think I’ve heard any say something similar about Michael Jackson. Or when I talk to music fans with more sophisticated and diverse tastes, his name is hardly mentioned. So he doesn’t seem to get much love from critics and serious music fans—that’s my impression, anyway.
…and as for “many Americans don’t seem to be really interested in understanding music and what makes it good”—I’m assuming he’s smart enough…
Well, that’s actually what I said, not the author (he said, sheepishly). But, yeah, I wasn’t really think of critics, but the average person who likes pop music. For most of my life, I think I was an average music listener (versus a more sophisticated one), and I didn’t really listen deeply to the music (e.g., listening to what each instrument was doing and how they all fit together, etc.). If I liked the singer’s voice and the music had a good beat or rocked, I liked the music. I often didn’t understand the lyrics, nor did I care (to paraphrase Frank Zappa, singing was essentially “pitched mouthed noises”).
And the comments section of that Atlantic section sort of support the claim that many people aren’t really interested in the music. A majority of the comments are about the more tawdry aspects of Jackson’s personal life.
Btw, did we ever resolve how much credit Michael Jackson deserves for the music on his albums? There’s no doubt in my mind that he had a great voice and he’s one of the best—if not they best pop/rock singers of all time—and he’s one of the best performers of all time. But when it comes to the actual music on the albums, I’m not really sure how much credit he deserves or doesn’t deserve.
Hmm, that’s interesting—although I don’t know if that’s completely true. Maybe for some songs (especially the newer ones), but do you feel that way for his earlier music.
What’d you mean by ambiguous pop singers?
Ruby said, a bit ^ ironic that everyone thought prince was the ‘dangerous’ one.
Where do you all stand on Prince vs. Michael Jackson—in terms of who the better artist is?
What’s to analyse? apart from reading something into his dance moves of course? No doubt that his tracks were layered and there was a strong level of craft behind them, but his lyrics and subject matter weren’t exactly interesting. When he wanted to rail against the media, he did so in spectacularly blant and obvious fashion(e.g Leave me Alone, Tabloid Junkie, Privacy), and the same goes for when he wanted to display a social conscience( We Are The World, Heal The World, Man In The Mirror etc). If you look at the rest of his lyrics, when he is in ‘aggressive mode’ and isn’t railing against the media or the state of the world, he is generally lashing out at some unidentified ‘other’ that he feels has betrayed him—usually a woman—or singing about love or romance—the ups and the downs—whether real or imagined.
Of course there is always a question about who these ‘mysterious’ women, are but who but the most obsessed fan would lose any sleep over figuring out the precise identity of Liberian Girl?
I think the reason people focussed on his alleged peter pan complex is because it was the most interesting and bizarre aspect about his otherwise bland personality. The fact is that he was nowhere near as ambiguous as Madonna, who i don’t like much btw, but i get why cultural critics went nuts in the 80’s, even if the ‘analysis’ was often influenced by dodgy feminist politics, or revealed itself to be little more than pathetic, thinly veiled hero worship(e.g Paglia)
The question of race is misguided. Jackson was not interested in racial politics. He was not trying to explicitly align himself with any African diasporic tradition, American or otherwise, at least not consciously anyway. It’s more interesting to think of how differed from the black artists that supposedly influenced him.
JAZZ: Prince is a better musician, and more varied in terms of recorded output, but Jackson had the voice and the moves and the galvanizing stage presence.
No popular performer affected audiences like him since Elvis and The Beatles, and i’d argue that he even surpassed them, at least in his prime.
“wasn’t really think of critics, but the average person who likes pop music. "
Yeah, there’s an element of disposability to pop music. Artists are supplanted to by other artists, songs are replaced by other songs. Partly it works like cinephiles and mainstream films, there’s a tendency to align themselves with the more “serious” works, because, as a connoisseur, you differentiate yourself from “the herd” by aligning yourself with the more “serious” works.
Clearly, with Jackson, at a certain point, the commercial success overwhelmed and obscured whatever art was in the music almost completely. Greil Marcus writing near the end of that decade:
“Jackson-ism produced the image of a pop explosion, an event in which pop music crosses political, economic, geographic and racial barriers; in which a new world is suggested. Michael Jackson occupied the center of American cultural life: no other black artist had ever come close.
But a pop explosion not only links those otherwise separated by class, place, color and money; it also divides. Confronted with performers as appealing and disturbing as Elvis Presley, the Beatles or the Sex Pistols — people who raise the possibility of living in a new way — some respond and some don’t. It became clear that Michael Jackson’s explosion was of a new kind.
It was the first pop explosion not to be judged by the subjective quality of the response it provoked, but to be measured by the number of objective commercial exchanges it elicited. Michael Jackson was absolutely correct when he announced, at the height of his year (1984), that his greatest achievement was a Guinness Book of World Records award certifying that Thriller had generated more top-ten singles (seven) than any other LP — and not, as might have been expected … “to have proven that music is a universal language,” or even “to have demonstrated that with God’s help your dreams can come true.”
The pop explosions of Elvis, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols had assaulted or subverted social values; Thriller crossed over them like kudzu. The Jackson-ist pop explosion … was brought forth as a version of the official social reality, generated from Washington D.C. [Reagan summoned Jackson for a visit] as ideology, and from Madison Avenue as language … a glamorization of the new American fact that if you weren’t on top, you didn’t exist."
“If I liked the singer’s voice and the music had a good beat or rocked, I liked the music. I often didn’t understand the lyrics, nor did I care”
I actually really don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with NOT really engage the meaning of song lyrics.
“some of the points he raises (the amount of cover appearances on Rolling Stone magazine, etc.) did give me pause.”
Perhaps, but re: “Michael Jackson, arguably the most influential artist of the 20th century”? Suffice to say that this assertion is indeed very arguable, especially when with the RS covers thing he’s explicitly evoking comparison to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and the Beatles and Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
Well, a couple of things about the Rolling Stone issue. Firstly, all magazines have their own editorial biases, but RS started off as more of a vaguely counter culture-y rock magazine and was that primarily until it was clearly more profitable to become something else. Jackson’s music didn’t really fit that model. Compare someone like Jimi Hendrix, who I believe has been on the cover at least ten times. And it’s not as if there weren’t other black artists (and other cultural figures) on the cover of RS before Jackson became insanely popular as a solo artist:
“a lot of jazz musicians will openly and effusively talk about Stevie Wonder, James Brown or Marvin Gaye, but I don’t think I’ve heard any say something similar about Michael Jackson. "
As a singer, Jackson’s not at that level, and not at the level of, say Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, or Solomon Burke. As as musician/band leader, he’s not at the level of Hendrix, or Ike Turner, or Sly Stone, or Prince.
I’m tempted to use a film metaphor again, Jazz, and talk about Jackson in terms of auteurism and an impersonal style.
“I think the reason people focussed on his alleged peter pan complex is because it was the most interesting and bizarre aspect about his otherwise bland personality.”
Yeah, no doubt at a certain point the public fixation with his private life replaced the public fixation on his music.
What’s to analyse?
I think we can analyze his singing, dancing and music itself. With the music, the crictical question is, how much credit does Jackson deserve for that? He doesn’t always write the music, play instruments and I’m not sure about his role in arranging or shaping the music.
I think the reason people focussed on his alleged peter pan complex is because it was the most interesting and bizarre aspect about his otherwise bland personality.
I think if we’re talking about the popular press and average fans, I think they’re not interested in the music—the meaning of the lyrics, the nuts-and-bolts of how it works. Do people even know or care who the musicians are on the recordings and the way they influenced and made the music? I bet that’s a relatively small number of people.
The question of race is misguided. Jackson was not interested in racial politics.
I don’t know if he was interested in racial politics, per se, but I do remember reading about other black musicians talking about MTV’s bias against black musicians—and how Michael Jackson “broke through” that. It’s strange because I listened to a lot of black musicians—and certainly many radio stations featured black artists—but in the early years, MTV didn’t play a lot of videos from black musicians. Actually, with the exception of Michael Jackson and a few others, that was the case throughout the 80s. (If you watched BET’s music video program, you could really see the difference.)
Prince is a better musician, and more varied in terms of recorded output, but Jackson had the voice and the moves and the galvanizing stage presence.
Well, I think Prince’s musicianship and “auteur status” is pretty clear. With Jackson, besides being a great singer and dancer, I’m not sure how much he contributed to the music.
I’d probably agree with that.
“Do people even know or care who the musicians are on the recordings and the way they influenced and made the music?”
Well, in fairness to the Average Joe, the production and marketing practices of a lot of pop music has made studio musicianship intentionally obscure, and Thriller was one of the pinnacles of the philosophy of bringing in a collections of “hired guns” to record in the studio, and then when it came time to tour, you put together a (usually less accomplished) “road band.” It’s essentially using the studio as a sort of master instrument rather than the standard band recording philosophy, which was really originally about capturing the musician’s live sound on record.
“MTV didn’t play a lot of videos from black musicians. Actually, with the exception of Michael Jackson and a few others, that was the case throughout the 80s. (If you watched BET’s music video program, you could really see the difference.)”
To my recollection, the first entirely black band video to be played on MTV:
I would starting out again by saying that MTV started out thinking of itself specific as a rock station, but yeah, artist diversity was not really a strong point at the beginning for MTV. But bear in mind that BET’s not really a good counter example because their music video programming was targeted specifically for a black audience and as counter-programming to MTV’s, right? It’s not as if BET programming was a model for racial and stylistic diversity. (Note also that MTV’s track record in terms of actual hiring practices was better, Carolyn Baker, a black woman, was the network’s first head of talent and acquisition, and MTV was run by Christina Norman, a black woman, from 2005-2008).
As I recall it, the programming in the early years of MTV was pretty much a free-for-all, with no particular rhyme or reason to many of the choices they made, so nothing was particularly well represented. I do remember seeing Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, The Specials (an integrated band) were played very early on, Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie” Grace Jones got played, Tina Turner, Donna Summer, Eddie Grant . . . Prince’s videos were played a ton, starting with “Little Red Corvette” which was around the same time as “Billie Jean”. Lionel Ritchie was all over the place around that same time. Stylistically, they were all over the map. Baker is quoted in the book I Want My MTV as saying re: Rick James’s “Superfreak” that “As a black woman, I did not want that representing my people as the first black video on MTV.”
As a singer, Jackson’s not at that level, and not at the level of, say Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, or Solomon Burke.
Based on what I’ve heard, I’d put Jackson on the same level if not a higher level, than at least some of them. The purity, power and orgamic rauchiness (like James Brown or Little Richard) of his voice is pretty unique, imo. Those vocalists have some of that, but not all three or not to the same extent
As as musician/band leader, he’s not at the level of Hendrix, or Ike Turner, or Sly Stone, or Prince
Well, you’re probably right, but at this point, I don’t know how much Jackson contributed to the music.
The metaphor does seem apt—although not so much because Jackson’s style is impersonal, but his music seems highly collaborative. And he doesn’t seem to be the author behind the music, rather he’s one important component.
Well, in fairness to the Average Joe, the production and marketing practices of a lot of pop music has made studio musicianship intentionally obscure…
But do you think the Average Joe listens to all the instruments and how they fit into the music? Do they analyze the melodic, harmonic and rhtymic aspects of the music? A lot of people I know wouldn’t be really interested in this—and I was never this way (even though I grew up listening to and liking a lot of music), until I started becoming interested in jazz. This is what I mean by “people aren’t interested in music.” They like music—but they like certain timbres, beats, and they like catchy melodies and riffs. I think this would apply to 90% of the people I know who like music to some degree.
I would starting out again by saying that MTV started out thinking of itself specific as a rock station…
I think that’s a fair point, but did they want to play rock because most rock bands feature white musicians?
But bear in mind that BET’s not really a good counter example because their music video programming was targeted specifically for a black audience and as counter-programming to MTV’s, right? It’s not as if BET programming was a model for racial and stylistic diversity.
Good points. I just know that watching BET made me aware that MTV didn’t seem to feature a lot of R&B artists that got a lot of radio air time.
As I recall it, the programming in the early years of MTV was pretty much a free-for-all, with no particular rhyme or reason to many of the choices they made, so nothing was particularly well represented.
In a way, yeah. But, again, watching BET’s channel, I was struck by how many popular black musicians didn’t appear on MTV.
Really Jazz? I can’t say I think of Jackson being raunchy or particularly orgasmic at all. He has a fine voice, but it’s effect is closer to Barry Gibbland than the city of Redding. I thought Off the Wall was a fine album, although nothing to get too wound up about, and that some of his more dance oriented songs on the later albums were also fine, like Wanna Be Starting Something for example, but on the whole I felt the Thriller album was pretty much the Star Wars of the music industry, which is to say I could see people liking it, but it didn’t strike me as being some work of artistic genius.
I found Thriller to be over-produced giving it an almost manufactured feel, even more so in Jackson’s vocal affectations which get layered into the mix rather than seeming to exist organically as they might for someone like Joplin, not that I am the biggest fan of hers either, but at least there is a feeling of honest emotionality to her singing which Jones almost entirely weeds out of Jackson. Jackson doesn’t strike me as particularly emotionally adept either, partly due no doubt to his reliance on movies or movie emotions for much of his ideas it seems. His lyrics are nothing special generally, but can be downright embarrassing at times, like in that atrocious Liberian Girl song with its cliched rhymes and emotions. While I agree that one needn’t treat lyrics like they are poetry, and thus demand full explication, I also think that one can’t ignore them completely either, one has to weigh their relative importance and clarity within the individual song to best understand their “meaning” to the song.
To me he is at his best when singing songs with a sort of simpler emotional crux generally, and ones where his sort of vocal persona isn’t pushed to the sorts of silly extremes as in the song Bad, yeah Michael you’re sooo bad, like Disneyland, he couldn’t threaten a five year old much less any sensible adult. Songs like I Wanna Rock with You or Remember the Time, to me, fit his sort of vocal demeanor much better. Comparing Jackson’s “raunch” to Prince’s would, I think, make for a clear contrast a real projection of sexual demand and a imaginary one would be. None of this is to say that Jackson isn’t an interesting artist, or unique in some ways. He certainly is, and even some of the songs I don’t much care for have some interesting things going on in them, but he isn’t what I would consider profound or of great import aside from his fame and social influence/importance.
That article you linked to is simply awful by the way. Wrongheaded in almost every aspect, I can’t believe that guy was actually published by Atlantic, or I wish I couldn’t believe it, but they have been on a steadily declining arc for a while now and seem more interested in the sort of linkbait/article trolling that is so extensive on webzine sites now.
Michael Jackson was an excellent dancer and a skilled entertainer but his music isn’t my thing at all, his singing voice i would place well below Jazz’s above-mentioned group, and the lyrics were often poor. I was never keen on his persona and his success was partly due to hype, king of pap more than king of pop, but he obviously hit the right notes for a lot of people, so who am i, an old fogey, to put a dampener?