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MJ: Musican Extraordinaire

pianoWhat words come to mind when you think of Michael Jackson? Singer, dancer, and entertainer would be high on most peoples’ lists, perhaps followed by songwriter, actor, and philanthropist. But musician? Although he is sometimes referred to as such on various biographical write-ups (and even on his death certificate!) the question of whether the term “musician” in the strictest technical sense of the word could aptly be applied to Michael remains a highly debatable subject among music critics and fans alike. While no one disputes his superior abilities as a singer and dancer, the respect due him as a musician still lags far behind, mostly because he was never seen as a “musician’s musician.” He wasn’t a performer who stood in front of a microphone with a guitar strapped to him, or the type of performer who could be just as comfortable sitting onstage at a piano. And with the still recent death of Prince-a true musician if ever there was one-igniting again all of the “Who is Better” comparisons, it is a subject that has once again put an unfortunate (and, I think, completely unnecessary) spotlight on the matter. As I stated in my previous post, it is a complete myth that Michael Jackson did not or could not play instruments. That he purposely chose to not make musicianship a central part of his performing aesthetic has nothing to do with his talent or abilities when it came to playing musical instruments (and for the record, in all fairness we must remember that Prince and Michael did approach performing from two totally different aesthetics, neither of which was “better” than the other-like anything else, these issues are a matter of personal taste and preference).

A recent comment I saw on Youtube, on a countdown video of the “Top Ten Greatest Artists of All Time” in which Michael came in at #2, is sadly all too typical of the kind of ignorant, garbage comments that I see whenever the subject  comes up of Michael Jackson as an artist “worthy” of the lofty status he is often given:

+Sarumoh Bolu tell me again what instruments Micheal played? what albums did he even write more then half the songs? fact remains he didn’t create music, never wrote whole albums without the help of writers and didn’t change music like the beatles or elvis Presley. They’re being kind by having him at #2. it’s the beatles at 1 then everyone else. Michael wouldn’t crack top 3 on my list. he’s not an artist he’s an entertainer
Well, if you care to follow the full debate on that topic, it goes on at quite some length. Personal taste aside, this poster was wrong on just about every argument he tried to make. But since these wearisome and ill informed comments, steeped in ill informed myths, just keep coming up with no apparent end in sight, I decided it was high time to address the issue in what I hope will be the definitive post on this topic-and, hopefully, one that can finally allow us to move forward in our cultural appreciation of Michael Jackson, musician. Yes, I said musician. 

 

In this post, I will explore three important angles that must be considered before we can address the question of Michael’s “musicianship”-just how talented was Michael when it came to the ability to pick up an instrument and play; what actually constitutes the definition of a “musician” anyway; and just how fair or necessary are these kinds of comparisons for an artist of Jackson’s caliber?

In the past, when I’ve allowed myself to get dragged into these arguments (not surprisingly often with Prince fanatics or trolls/haters similar to the commentor above who have been brainwashed in the “rockism” tropes to the point that they think a skinny guy with a guitar is the only kind of artist with credibility) I have usually pointed out that Michael did play instruments-we know this, as he is credited on many of his albums on a multitude of instruments-but that in all fairness, he  recognized that his abilities were mediocre at best. This would usually then evolve into a defense that anyone with his astounding vocal and dancing abilities certainly shouldn’t owe any apologies to anyone. But reading through the similar comments by fans made in “defense” of Richard Lynche’s comments only reminded me of how woefully confused and under informed even some fans are about the subject of Michael’s musicianship. And I will admit, I have counted myself among them because my own opinions on the matter have continued to evolve as I have learned more and discovered more.

First off, I am no longer so sure that Michael’s abilities as an instrumentalist were “fair to mediocre at best.” In the past few years, I have heard some pretty amazing samples of his playing, especially on piano and keyboard. As I mentioned in my previous post, my first real revelation was the release of the Bad-era “Don’t Stop Messin’ Around” track which features Michael playing a beautiful and sprightly Bossa Nova style piano hook. At the time of the track’s release, as part of the 2012 Bad 25 project, recording engineer Matt Forger gave an interview in which he stated (referring to Jackson’s choice to play piano on the track) “He could do more than he ever really let people know.”

I think this statement may sum up perfectly why we didn’t have more firsthand examples of Michael Jackson’s technical musicianship prowess. In short, the evidence points not to lack of ability, but rather, to a conscious choice to focus on other aspects of his art that he felt needed his focus more. And as per Forger’s statement, it is possible that modesty (and perhaps his level of confidence) played a key role. That is to say, it is entirely possible that Michael was much more proficient in his playing of instruments than even he would give himself credit. But then again, it is also entirely possible that, confident or not, it simply didn’t interest him that much. There is ample evidence that he loved to “play around” with various instruments, and no doubt could gain proficiency quite easily with his natural rhythm and keen ear, but as for the dedication and practice it takes to truly master a certain instrument, he simply may not have had the attention span for it. Michael has always struck me as an artist who was far more interested in the raw composition of a piece and in its production than in the tedious process of plunking out its instrumentation. The stories of his amazing composition process, as a virtual one man symphony who could hear entire compositions in his head and dictate the sound of every instrument via his own vocalizations into a tape recorder, are legendary. One may realistically question that with such a rare and gifted ability to use his voice as an entire orchestra (one that I honestly do not think has been matched by any other artist that I am aware of) why would there be any need to tediously plunk out a composition on a single instrument (as most musician/composers do) to arrive at a finished product? Why would he when he could just as easily work out the entire arrangement-harmonies, chorus, lead and rhythm-with his vocal abilities alone?

But again, this is where we must be careful to separate interest and motivation from aptitude. This is something I know more than a little about, as a teacher who works with students on a daily basis. A student can have proficient aptitude and ability for a certain skill-such as creative writing, for example- but often if they are not motivated by what they perceive as a practical outcome for the skill, they aren’t going to devote much time to perfecting it. At best for this student, creative writing may become a hobby-what we might call a mustard seed talent-but not a lifetime profession.

Given the evidence I now have, I am more inclined to put Michael in this category-as a musician who, at best, viewed his own musicianship as a hobby or sideline to his more “serious” art of composing, singing, dancing, and performing. There is nothing wrong with that; it was obviously a conscious choice from an artist who knew that to be a true master, one can’t be a jack of all trades.

A good analogy might be, again, to drag out some of the Prince/MJ comparisons. Both could play instruments, but Prince obviously had a far more developed aptitude because he chose to focus on his musicianship. Both could dance, and I know that Prince had some amazing James Brown-influenced moves when he chose to cut loose, but dance was not a principle focus of his art in the same way that it was for Michael. Both were fair actors, though not great (Michael certainly had more potential for growth, as evidenced in performances like The Wiz) and Prince received terrible reviews for his directing debut with Under The Cherry Moon. My point here is that no matter how great any artist may be in his/her area of expertise, it is virtually impossible for any artist to excel in all fields of entertainment or art. The more likely reality is that they will be great at one or two, competent in a few other areas, and will totally suck at some. Another good case in point would be Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who played piano on many Queen tracks and was obviously a competent player, but according to many sources was always very self deprecating about his abilities and, over time, focused on them less and less in order to put more energy into his performing.

guitar2
Learning Guitar Chords In The Late 70’s

But it also begs the question again of why Michael Jackson, perhaps more than other artist, is often held to this rather unbalanced and unfair standard. After all, when we think of artists like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who were both renowned as great dancers, I don’t hear anyone bashing them or belittling their talent because they didn’t play instruments.

If we go back to our Prince/MJ analogy, it may be fair to say that Prince was certainly a competent dancer, but I never found his style to be especially unique (and again, to be fair, he never made his dancing the centerpiece attraction of his performances). And to be equally  fair, we might argue that Michael’s musicianship wasn’t especially unique even if he was quite good by most standards. But remember, for Michael, “good” didn’t cut it-he always wanted to be the best at everything he did, and therein, I think, lies the key. It wasn’t enough for Michael to be a competent musician. I think part of him knew he was good, but he may have honestly felt that he hadn’t the patience and dedication to become “great” at it-and being the perfectionist that he was, this may have been what held him back from showcasing his musicianship talents more.

However, typing the above sentence reminded me of something that his friend David Nordahl had to say during a public Q&A session that I attended in 2010. He told the amusing story of how Michael wanted to paint-in fact, the very basis of their friendship was that Michael wanted David to teach him how to paint. But although Michael had the aptitude, he didn’t have the patience. Nordahl recalled that Michael  would get frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t produce something “great” within a few days; something that met with his own standard of what “great art” should be. And that frustration, naturally, led to discouragement. He simply didn’t have the focus to become a great painter because his focus, as always, was on his music.

And yet, when we look at the many sketches and paintings Michael left behind, the initial reaction of many is a stunned disbelief that he possessed such a talent. His best sketches, many completed at a very young age, show a natural ability that still, to this day, astounds many art critics.

Michael Did This Sketch Of Dr. Martin Luther King At A Young Age
Michael Did This Sketch Of Dr. Martin Luther King At A Young Age

Obviously, art would become a kind of secondary talent for Michael that took a backseat to singing and dancing, but who’s to say what he might have been able to do with this talent had he chosen to put the same amount of focus and discipline into it that he applied to his singing and dancing?

So what we know of Michael’s art skills may shed an important light, as well, on his musicianship skills and how he viewed his abilities. Just as with his drawings and paintings, there was an obvious natural talent that was never really developed to its full potential due to the fact that he didn’t have the disciplined focus for it that he had for his music, I think we might safely say the same for his musicianship skills.

But even if we sum it up to such a pat explanation, it still doesn’t answer the big question about Michael’s abilities as a musician: Was he simply an all-too-modest genius who never really gave himself permission to shine, or merely a modest talent who recognized his own limitations?

Playing Organ
Playing Organ

For that answer, we can only look to the evidence we have-those rare instances when Michael did play an instrument publicly, or informal, private moments that were captured on tape or video, as well as first hand testimonies from those who were privileged to hear him play.

One of the earliest examples that I am aware of is this 1992 Pepsi commercial which featured Michael playing a stripped down, piano version of “I’ll Be There.”

Although detractors might argue that this simple, melodic riff is not an especially challenging number to play, there can be little doubt that his sparse playing perfectly emotes the mood of the song as surely as his beautifully understated vocal.  Of course, being that this was a filmed commercial, the playing is not live; it is quite obviously a synched performance to a pre-recorded backing track, so again, perhaps not the best “evidence” per se to convince detractors. Many of the comments on this video point out that we still don’t actually see his hands on the piano. But since this was only a mimed performance to begin with, what difference would it make? What is important is that Michael did do his own playing on that pre-recorded track, just as he did his own vocals, so whether this can count as a “live” performance is really a moot point. The track itself still stands as a testament to his ability to play the instrument. And the fact that  this commercial aired on national TV should certainly stand as even more compelling evidence that the public did see this side of Michael, albeit that it was an all too rare glimpse.

Early Photo Of Michael Playing Keyboard
Early Photo Of Michael Playing Keyboard

Although Michael was said to be quite apt on drums and guitar, it was the piano (and conversely other keyboard instruments such as organs and synthesizers) that he seemed most drawn to. Every home in which he lived always had at least one piano-often more-and these were by no means idle decorations, as there are numerous videos that showcase him playing in informal settings, usually for friends or his children.

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In this rare video showcasing Michael’s son Prince, Michael can be heard (and is briefly glimpsed) in the background playing Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” As with so many of these examples, it is an all too brief snippet that still doesn’t really provide us enough to reach a foregone conclusion as to our question’s answer, but it’s enough to let us know that at the very least, he was definitely quite good on the piano-which alone should be sufficient to quash the silly notions that he couldn’t play anything at all, or was capable only of very basic chords.

An even more telling glimpse is revealed when looking at the liner notes of his albums where the musicians are credited. An excellent case in point would be the HIStory album, for which it is known that he did receive credit for playing on many of the tracks. Here is an online version that I found of the HIStory  liner notes. For the sake of brevity, I will only include here the section that is relevant to the current discussion-the musicians’ credits. These are, strictly speaking, the credits for anyone who had a hands-on role in contributing musically to the album’s tracks. I have boldfaced where Michael’s musician credits appear:

Piano Performances by David Foster, Brad Buxer, BIG “Jim” Wright, and Jonathan Mackey.

Keyboards and Synthesizers: Michael Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, David Foster, Steve “Yada” Porcaro, David Paich, Bill Bottrell, Dallas Austin, R. Kelly, Rene, Brad Buxer, Simon Franglen, Greg Phillinganes, Lafayette Carthon, Michael Boddicker, Chuck Wild, Rob Arbitter, Gary Adante, John Barnes, and Randy Waldman.

Synthesizer Programming: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Simon Franglen, Steve Porcaro, Brad Buxer, Peter Mokran, Michael Boddicker, Chuck Wild, Andrew Scheps, Rick Sheppard, Rob Hoffman, Bobby Brooks, Jeff Bova, Chris Palmero, Jason Miles, Arnie Schulze, and Gregg Mangiafico.

Drum Programming: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Peter Mokran, and Andrew Scheps.
Synclavier Programming: Andrew Scheps and Simon Franglen.

Guitars: Slash, Nile Rodgers, Trevor Rabin, Paul Jackson Jr., Steve Lukather, Bill Bottrell, Jeff Mirinov, Michael Jackson, Rob Hoffman, Michael Thompson, Jen Leigh.

Drums and Percussion: Michael Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Bill Bottrell, Buddy Williams, Bruce Swedien, Simon Franglen, Rene, Chuck Wild, Bobby Brooks, Bryan Loren, Omar Hakim, and Steve Ferrone.

Bass: David Paich, Colin Wolfe, Louis Johnson, Wayne Pedzwater, Keith Rouster, Doug Grigsby, and Guy Pratt.

Synth Bass: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Greg Phillinganes.

Horns: Larry Williams, Jerry Hey, Gary Grant, Bill Reichenbach, and Kim Hutchcroft.

Organ: BIG “Jim” Wright.
Violin Solo: Paul Peabody.

Interestingly, musician credits are generally ordered according to the amount they actually contributed to the track, and here we see Michael’s name listed first in at least two categories, keyboards and drums. This would mean that his role on those two instruments was quite prevalent throughout the recording process. And although his guitar contributions are significantly less, he is still credited as one of the album’s featured guitarists. That track was most likely the opening track “Scream,” for which Michael was credited as having played most of the major instruments-“keyboard, guitar, drums and percussion” according to the allmichaeljackson.com website.

Michael Posed With A Beautiful Flying V For The "Scream" Video, Which He Later Smashes In True Rock Star Style...
Michael Posed With A Beautiful Flying V For The “Scream” Video, Which He Later Smashes In True Rock Star Style…

Wait a minute-most of the major instruments on that track? “Scream” is definitely one of the most musically complex tracks of the entire album, with its mixture of industrial beats and funk. Keeping in mind this fresh perspective, let’s take another listen to this classic track. I’m going to post here a more simplified version featuring only the track and lyrics, so that we won’t be distracted by the visual element of its landmark video. The purpose for now is to focus on its instrumentation.

...But Did He Actually Play It On The Track?
…But Did He Actually Play It On The Track?

In listening to this track solely for its instrumentation, there are at least three really interesting segments. One is the poppy, Beatles-esque guitar bridge that occurs about 2:23, right after the line “I think I might go insane.” In Michael’s 1993 Mexican deposition he gave one of the most articulate and intelligent definitions of a song’s bridge that I have ever heard, describing it as the moment in the song when everything changes in order to take the listener to a new place, so that when they return to the main verse and chorus, everything is fresh again and yet elevated somehow.

In this section of the song, the mini guitar bridge serves that purpose. It both elevates the track and yet brings it refreshingly to earth after all of the synth-infused grindings and whooshings of the verse and chorus. It is a wonderfully underplayed riff that invokes the same “spacey” vibe that would later become the video’s theme, like someone playing just slightly against the pull of gravity. Unlike most guitar solos, it doesn’t release the song’s tension, however, which is interesting; if anything, the riff merely pulls the song tighter here. It only lasts a few seconds, but manages to stand out as a classic pop guitar riff. This is intensified in the song’s main bridge, in which the guitar finally releases the song’s tension via an understated but nevertheless impressive  heavy metal breakdown that is just as abruptly reeled back in at 3:26 with a series of soaring lead chords that again invoke the weightless feel of floating in space. It’s quite interesting, also, to see how many Youtube videos have been posted of heavy metal guitarists covering this track, many of them putting their own spin on it. (It is equally amusing to see how many comments will usually pop up asking who played guitar on the original track!). The fact that this track is one so frequently covered by metal guitarists says something in itself; that, obviously, Michael created a sound in ‘Scream” that other musicians have been trying to imitate or better for twenty-one years. Here is another example in which a website dedicated to serious musicianship has a post from someone wanting to emulate the sounds accomplished in “Scream.”

However, before we get too carried away with giving Michael all of the credit here, keep in mind that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are also credited on the track, and there seems to be some contradiction among sources as to who actually played what. Michael has been credited as playing instruments on a number of other tracks, as well, including “Morphine,” “Break of Dawn,” and “Threatened.” But as some have been quick to argue, an album credit doesn’t tell us a lot because credits can be divvied up in numerous ways-for example, if Michael simply beat boxed the rhythm to a guitarist or the beat to a drummer, that in itself could have been merit for a credit. Unfortunately, we don’t have video footage of these recording sessions that would definitively “confirm” the question once and for all, and even the first hand accounts of engineers, producers, and other musicians who were there have been often frustratingly contradictory, with some claiming that they saw or heard Michael play “beautifully” while others will insist they never knew him to play an instrument at all.

Another unfortunate factor is that, since Michael never played publicly enough for listeners to distinguish a specific style or technique to associate with him, it becomes even more difficult to ascertain when we are actually hearing Michael play an instrument, as opposed to someone else.

However, we still have “Don’t Be Messin’ Around”-a track on which Michael’s piano contribution has been fully confirmed-on which to stake our case. And it stands to reason that if Michael could play this well on a 1980’s era track, he would have only gotten better as time went on.

In a way, it makes more sense than not to think of Michael as a musician. Let’s not forget that Michael came from an entire family of musicians. His father was an accomplished guitarist; he grew up surrounded by brothers and cousins who played instruments; instruments were always a part of the Jackson household. It’s naive to think that Michael could have grown up in such an atmosphere without at least having the curiosity to pick up an instrument from time to time.

Young Michael On Drums
Young Michael On Drums

It is also quite easy to believe that with his genetics, he was bound to have some degree of natural music talent beyond just singing and dancing. But because he was so good at what he did as The Jackson 5 “front man” there was not a lot of encouragement to develop any latent musicianship skills he may have had. After all, Jackie, Jermaine, and Tito held down the musicianship end of the group.  All the same, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming from such a musical background, with Michael’s known curiosity and with so many instruments always within easy reach, having no aptitude or even inclination to play an instrument.

So, to sum up the answer to our question, we know at least one thing for sure. Michael could play instruments, and by the late 1980’s and 1990’s, had become quite adept. What remains more dubious is whether he was truly a Modest Mouse who kept a genius level ability hidden away in the closet, or simply a competent talent who knew his limitations. Until better evidence surfaces, I am still more inclined toward the latter, although I think the few examples we have are certainly intriguing and enough to make one wonder if there was indeed more to Michael’s talent than we’ll ever know.

So what is the true definition of a musician? Merriam Webster defines a musician as someone who “writes, sings or plays music.” By that definition alone, Michael certainly qualifies as a musician-he did all three! Furthermore, I think there is often a tendency to under estimate just how complex his composing abilities actually were. I often see comments where people will brush off his abilities by saying, “Oh, he just told other people what to play.” No thought is given to just how complex that process could be, or how completely intact his ideas came to him. Michael could always “hear” the sounds he wanted for the piece, but communicating those ideas could be challenging since he didn’t read music nor did he have formal training, so of course there are those rather humorous stories of Michael trying to communicate to a musician that it needs to sound “like moonlight” or “like a summer breeze on the beach.”

Michael Famously Demonstrates His Composing Process To Diane Sawyer, Who Called Him A “Hard Wired, 48-Track Digitally Mastered Human”

However, listening to his demos-which he often recorded in his home studio, and for which he usually provided all leads, harmonies and rhythm through vocalizations and crude instrumentation (sometimes out of bottles or whatever else was handy)-are perhaps the best key to understanding his true creative process. In these demos, for example, you can hear just how “complete” these famous tracks came to him, and how he already had much of their musical backbone structure intact  before even going into the studio.

“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” Home Demo (1978)

Finished Studio Version (1979)

“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Home Demo (1981)

Finished Studio Version (1982)

“Beat It” Home Demo (1981)

Finished Studio Version (1982)

I think the real question we have to ask is why such an extraordinarily gifted composer, singer and dancer is held to this unfair standard that he is somehow a “lesser” talent because we didn’t see him play an instrument onstage? Much of it has to do with what has been a cultural shift in entertainment priorities, with roots that stretch back to the counter-cultural and “folkie” era when the singer/songwriter became the symbol of “cool.” There still persists, especially among the rock culture, a myth of two polarizing extremes of performance-the authentic musician, or the entertainer, with the belief that the latter is somehow less authentic, less pure, and therefore the lesser talent. And yet history has provided us many examples of great singers and great performers who never played instruments onstage-Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, just to name a few. Even Elvis Presley was more of a poser, since his guitar was usually just for show (he could strum a few simple chords, so I have read, but not much more-but he was also an underrated choreographer who came up with many of his best dance sequences, including “Jailhouse Rock!”).

Maybe the moral of the story is that we need to stop judging performers by these unfair double standards, and appreciate them for who they are-and what they do best. Who’s to say that one aesthetic of performing is somehow better than another’s? Personal tastes aside, we have to realize that the term “musician” has many standards by which it can be measured-as does the term “genius.”

Prince's "Piano & A Microphone" Tour Was A Brilliant Idea, Allowing The Performer To Showcase His Versatility While Also Allowing A Restful Change Of Pace From His Usually High Octane Performances. Could Michael Have Pulled Off Something Similar?
Prince’s “Piano & A Microphone” Tour Was A Brilliant Idea, Allowing The Performer To Showcase His Versatility While Also Allowing A Restful Change Of Pace From His Usually High Octane Performances. Could Michael Have Pulled Off Something Similar?

However, I have mentioned on this blog before that I do think it would have been interesting, at the very least, to see Michael perform in a much more low key and intimate style, such as what Prince was doing with his “Piano & A Microphone” tour, or even to just take a moment out of his usual high octane performances to sit with a guitar and sing a ballad, as Madonna has done on her Rebel Heart tour. It would have been a really nice change of pace that would have gone a long way toward proving his versatility. Who knows, maybe if he had lived he would have gone that route. It’s not as if he could have kept dancing like a twenty-year-old forever. But it was Michael’s father Joseph who had instilled in him at an early age that he had to be “in constant motion” on the stage at all times, a belief that had been further ingrained by his Motown training and further cemented by the enormous success of his famous dance routines. Even his ballads were usually performed in a state of perpetual motion.

For Michael, Even Ballads Like “Human Nature” Were Always Performed In A State Of Perpetual Motion

Given this enormous pressure, is it any wonder Michael wasn’t going to be the sort of performer who would ever sit quietly onstage at a piano or on a stool playing a guitar? It is sad in a way, because his “This Is It’ concerts needn’t have been a grueling marathon test where a fifty-year-old performer of his caliber had to “prove” that he could still do what he did thirty years ago. Personally, I would have loved the opportunity to see Michael Jackson age gracefully into a singer/songwriter of the stage. I’m sure his performances would have still been electrifying-could you imagine him sitting at a piano and singing “Man In The Mirror” with a full backup choir behind him? I can, and I know it would have been absolutely astounding.

But one thing the evidence clearly shows-it wasn’t that he couldn’t. It was because it was a conscious choice he made-the choice of a true musician who felt he had nothing to prove (but perhaps sadly and ironically, everything to prove).  We may not always agree with those choices-sometimes we may wish he would have done more of this, or less of that; that he might have shown even more of what he was capable of,  but as admirers of his music and art, we must in the end respect the choices he made, as well as respecting him for the artist that he was-not the one we may have sometimes wanted him to be, but for who he was.

A true musician deserves no less.

ETA: As an addendum to this piece, I wanted to add that there are at least two other public occasions where Michael was witnessed playing an instrument (piano). In J. Randy Taraborelli’s biography, it is stated that Michael played piano at his wedding ceremony to Debbie Rowe.

On the insistence of Michael’s mother, Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, he and Debbie married after his divorce from Lisa. Six months’ pregnant and wearing black, she walked towards him at his suite in a Sydney hotel while he sat at the piano playing ‘Here comes the bride’.

Photos from Michael’s wedding to Debbie Rowe. The piano on which he played “The Wedding March” can clearly be seen behind them.

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And here was a personal story recounted on the mjjfancommunity website (unfortunately, the link provided to the story’s original source no longer works):

From the time I was five years old I have been singing in studios all over NYC for commercials, demos and even music albums. My sister, brother and I have sung on albums for Gloria Estefan, Liza Minelli, Maureen McGovern and even soloed on the Canadian Brass Christmas album. One day, my mother got a call from our contractor booking us for a recording at the Hit Factory. We weren’t allowed to know for whom we were singing and we were only allowed one parent per child. Our interest was peaked. We spent the next few days trying to figure out who this mystery recording could be for. We decided to bring three CD covers with us- Frank Sinatra (he was still alive at the time), Madonna and Michael Jackson.

We went to the studio and some guy told us we were going to be singing one word… “Childhood”. He sang it for us once or twice then began recording. All we heard in the cans (headphones) were tracks with no lead vocal. We still couldn’t figure out what or whom this was for. After singing the one word a few times, I saw a man behind the glass in the recording studio step forward out of the darkness with a black hat, a red shirt and a black curl in front of his face. On the talkback we heard, “Can you sing it a little more like this… Childhood” As soon as I heard the voice I grabbed my sister’s hand and spoke without moving my lips “It’s MICHAEL JACKSON!!!!”

I cooly sang “Childhood” about a dozen more times and the engineer thanked us and said we were done. We went back to the green room where our parents were waiting and I grabbed the Bad album cover from my mom and brought it to Michael’s assistant. I asked her if she could please bring it to Michael and have him sign it. The other kids who sang with us began ripping little pieces of paper for him to sign. They were no where near as prepared as my family!!

The assistant said “Let me see what I can do”, and she disappeared for about five minutes. She came back and said, “Can I have all of the kids follow me?” We followed her to a door in the Hit Factory that had a star on it and said “Jackson”. We went into the room and there he was, greeting us at the door with a hand shake and a smile and telling us that it was a pleasure to meet us. Can you imagine? A pleasure to meet us?? His room was filled with some pretty strange things: life-size cut-outs of the Power Rangers, a train set, and a giant globe that rotated. He had pictures of children that he had helped attached to the country they were from.

Michael had many questions for us like if any of us went to camp for the summer. He said that he always asked his parents if he could go to summer camp because it looked like so much fun and of course they told him no!! This was right around the time when the media was questioning whether or not he had married Lisa Marie Presley. I noticed a ring on his hand and I said, “so does that ring mean you are married to Lisa Marie?” He nodded his head yes and said “shhhhhh”. We chatted for a while, he signed our album cover and we went home having what I thought was the greatest day of my life.

A week or two later my mother got another call from our contractor. This time she said Michael wanted to have us back to the studio to record a Christmas song. It was July but when we got to the studio, it was decorated for the holidays. There was snow all over the ground, a tree, Santa who gave us all presents (we each got a Gameboy… tells you how long ago this was!!) and reindeer. Michael came walking right into the studio this time and didn’t hide behind the glass. I guess he felt more comfortable with us this time. He taught us the song himself and stayed with us in the sound booth as we were singing it. After we recorded the song he invited our parents into the studio and had the whole thing catered. We sat around the piano as he played the piano and we all sang Christmas songs. It’s just like Christmas Eve at the Elefante’s (my in-laws)!!!

So on June 25th, when the whole world was in shock of Michael Jackson’s death, these were the memories that all came flooding back for me.

Michael and Nudity? Examining Perceptions of Michael, Sexuality, and Exhibitionism

gorman2Yep, it seems just about every celebrity has “gone there” at some point, and Michael-for all his purported shyness-was no exception. When this semi nude photo from a 1987 Greg Gorman shoot surfaced recently, as part of Gorman’s recently opened exhibition in Germany, it caused quite a sensation in the MJ fan community, as well as some very polarizing reactions. Although most fans are always delighted with any images that celebrate Michael’s extraordinary beauty and sensuality, this one struck a bit of interesting discord, from accusations that it was a fake (it isn’t) to the arguments that Michael would never have posed for such a pic. Well, obviously he did, so there goes that argument. As to why it took this many years for the photo to surface, that may be another matter. It’s likely that Michael, who almost always demanded final say on these matters (and was as much of a noted perfectionist when it came to his looks and image as he was in regard to his music) wasn’t happy with the end product, and it may have been for much the same reason that he reportedly didn’t like the Bani shoots for the Invincible album.

Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.
Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.

Although I appreciate Michael’s physique as much as the next female fan, I am not overly fond of this photo, either. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the leg warmers (lol, whose idea were those, anyway!?) but the whole thing just smacks of 80’s cheesiness to me, like the models in those 80’s issues of Playgirl that I used to secretly buy and hide under my bed to keep my grandmother from finding them. Well, it was 1987, after all, and what fashion statement wasn’t complete in those days without leg warmers? However, I agree with the fans who have stated that Michael’s sensual appeal was probably much better captured in photographs such as those shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, Todd Gray, Lynn Goldsmith, and Herb Ritts (responsible for Michael’s smoldering “In The Closet” look). To that list, I think we could also add the sizzling Alan Watson pole shoots from 1999, which (even though fully clothed) were still some of the sexiest shots Michael ever did. Collectively, all of these photos indicate that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier .

Michael's Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that "less" isn't necessarily sexier.
Michael’s Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier.

Nevertheless, since Michael did pose (and we can presume willingly) for the Gorman shoot, as well as all the others mentioned here-and did have the audacity to wear those infamous gold pants onstage that left practically nothing to imagination, I think it may be high time to examine what these images and choices can really tell us about Michael-how he viewed himself and his body (both as a work of art and as a sexually deified “object”), his particular brand of exhibitionism (which no performer can exist without to some degree) and to what extent some of these choices may have reflected his own sexual liberation during this time.

There persists an almost puritanical myth about Michael, sex, and how he viewed his body, as well as the idea of being perceived as a sexual “object” (if you will, for lack of a better word). This myth is commonly perpetuated even among some elements of the fan base, which invites a lot of fascinating and seemingly contradictory dualities. While fans may ogle and “aww” over sexy photos of Michael, many will also still insist that he was a puritanical angel, shy to the point of awkwardness over his body, who was often repulsed by the behavior of sex crazed fans. This is an idea that has been reinforced by a well circulated quote from Boteach Schmuley’s book:

“No, that’s crazy, like some of these singers who put bulges in their pants, that’s crazy.  I don’t understand that.  That’s like disgusting to me when they do stuff like that.  That’s embarrassing.  I don’t want nobody to even look at me down….like looking for that.  That would just embarrass me so bad, oh God.”
 
“When I think about it, I would never say this on TV, but if I went on stage thinking about what goes through women’s heads, I would never go out on stage.  If I was suddenly to start thinking about what they were thinking about….sex, or what I look like naked, then, oh God, that would be so embarrassing.  I could never go out.  That’s so horrible.” -Excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes. 
This is an interesting quote, partly because (as were all these recorded conversations with Schmuley that eventually made their way into the book) it was a frank and off the cuff, private conversation never intended for public consumption-in other words, this wasn’t the usually very carefully guarded Michael protecting an “image.” But by the same token, his own words here seem to belie many of the choices he willingly made, and certainly the onstage image he consciously presented as a sexualized performer. True, as he states, Michael never resorted to any of those hideous, cheesy tricks like stuffing his pants with socks-well, according to rumor, anyway, there was no need to, as his own assets were said to be quite sufficient in that department (and given the solid consistency of those stories, we have to assume there must be some truth to them).
The Famous Gold Pants Didn't Lie!
The Famous Gold Pants Didn’t Lie!
But I always found Michael’s protestations of total innocence on the matter (especially during the HIStory tour when he was willingly wearing those gold pants every night) a curiously charming-and at times tauntingly cruel-tactic. Sort of like the girl who goes out in a mini skirt, tight sweater and high heels, but then protests, “I don’t like guys drooling over me; I don’t like drawing attention to myself.” You get the picture. Michael was sending us a lot of mixed messages and signals, but to what extent he did so intentionally-and how much may have been mere wishful projection on the part of fans-remains a debatable issue. My personal belief is that Michael was much too smart to not realize exactly what he was doing,  the effect he was having, and why. He had perfected the coy power of creating sexual tension among his fanbase-knowing when to give it, when to draw back, and how to perpetuate the frustrations of an entire generation who were obsessed with the idea of him as some desirable, but utterly unattainable object of lust-and, for that matter, as to just how “unattainable” he really was remains a likewise debatable issue. All male rock and pop stars have their share of “groupie stories”-those rumors, whispers, and urban legends that get passed down, first by word of mouth, and eventually sometimes, even archived on websites where these women often enjoy posting about their conquests-and occasional horror stories-from the “good old days.” Michael has had his share of those stories as well-many of which may be fan fics, but nevertheless, there is a certain consistency to their details that lends, for me, at least, a degree of credibility. If you are curious about that sort of thing, there is a new website, Michael’s Human Nature that has compiled and archived many of these groupie stories and urban legends about Michael. The blog’s author does provide a disclaimer warning that the stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, they are certainly entertaining to read! And while I am not automatically prone to believe every groupie story about Michael that is circulated, I do find that at least a few offer some interesting consistencies in their details (making it at least somewhat plausible that they are all describing the same man in bed, who would have indulged in a fairly consistent pattern of acts with each woman-for example, the tendency to be quite loud and vocal; an apparent attraction for soft masochism; the preference for “doggie style” and an express skill for cunninlingus (a definite plus in the groupie world, where the #1 complaint is usually about selfish male musicians who demand head while giving nothing in return) and a few have offered up some interesting details that have only been confirmed in very recent years since his passing (even though many of these stories have circulated for years) such as the lack of circumcision and the clutter of his Neverland bedroom.
As tantalizingly fun  as the subject may be, however, my intent here isn’t to go off on a tangent about Michael’s offstage conquests, casual or otherwise. However, neither is it a totally irrelevant topic if we’re going to discuss Michael in terms of nudity, sexuality, how he viewed his body, and more importantly, the frustratingly contradictory perceptions he created among fans and critics alike. I don’t have to tell you that few, if any performers, have ever had every nuance of their sexuality scrutinized and psychologized to the degree that Michael Jackson has, nor has any other  performer ever  been pegged so diversely as everything from asexual and virginal (if we believe the popular mainstream media trope) to downright horn dog (according to the stories of some acquaintances), and every stop in between. Do you ever just want to say, “Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up?” Where do we begin to strip away, to deconstruct and reconstruct these myths? And perhaps the bigger question: Do we want to? For those fans who are fiercely protective of their “Michael was a saint” image, these questions remain something of a troubling paradox. Often, unwittingly, they are playing right into the mainstream narrative, which is (I believe) far more malicious in its purpose. Think about who is really most responsible for creating the myths of Michael as an asexual or virginal man-child. It certainly didn’t come from his legion of female fans. It didn’t come from his loyal following among African-Americans. Where does it spring? Not surprisingly, from white male writers who, due to the fact that they have monopolized the entertainment and music media for decades, have pretty much called the shots. In J. Randy Taraborelli’s book The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, Taraborelli helped plant the myth of a performer whose offstage views on girls, sex and romance were oddly at variance with his public image and onstage persona, based largely on an interview he conducted with Michael in August of 1977-a time when Michael was all of nineteen.
“I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy…but I don’t think that about myself. It’s all just fantasy, really. I like to make my fans happy so I might pose or dance in a way that makes them think I’m romantic. But really I guess I’m not that way.”-Excerpted from The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. 
 Michael further cemented this awkward, almost puritanical view of himself when he told Martin Bashir how he had “chickened out” of a romantic encounter with Tatum O’ Neal.  But while these kinds of quotes have often been circulated as “proof” that Michael must have been somehow either extremely backwards and puritanical in regard to sex, or else exhibiting some form of extreme sexual dysfunction, neither takes into account his age at the time of these reported events. For the most part, Michael made many of these statements as a teenager or, as in the case of the Tatum story, when looking back on a teenage event. If we compare those statements to some of the comments he made about girls as an even younger kid (say, about ten or so) a very different picture emerges, of an almost sexually precocious kid who giggled about women’s assets (“look at the hot cakes on her!” he would often joke when a well endowed girl walked past). These stories really do not sound unlike the adult Michael, who according to most friends, was openly flirtatious and usually didn’t miss an opportunity to comment on any t&a that caught his eye.
However, none of this is as totally inconsistent as it might sound. Michael evolved through many different stages in his life, from a cheerful and outgoing kid to a reticent, withdrawn, and seemingly troubled adolescent who became very self-conscious over his own growing body and the sometimes awkward changes that puberty wrought. Later, this extreme self consciousness would be exacerbated by some very real medical conditions, among them vitiligo and discoid lupus. But also, Michael reached a hard won maturity in his life, part of which was learning to accept and love his physical shell, what the poet Walt Whitman called “the body electric.” Whitman’s poem is rather long (as most of his works were) but I will quote here the part of the poem that I feel is most relevant to our discussion:
1
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
2
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side…
 It is certainly interesting to compare this poem to Michael’s own similarly themed poem “I Am Beautiful” which, like Whitman’s poem, can be interpreted to be as much about a newfound sense of liberation and acceptance of his physical body as it is a celebration of spiritual rebirth and awakening:
12178_2
 “I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Gorgeous
   God is for me, who can be
   against me?
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m a new person now
   Beautiful, knowing the
   secrets and Determined
   with fire to Move Mountains
   in all I do. Molding my own
   world.
   I’m Beautiful.
                                                                                        The old me is behind
                                                                                         I will march ahead anew”-
                                                                                         Michael Jackson.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that this poem was written within just a few years of the Gorman photo shoot, and also coincides with the entire, liberated awakening of self that seemed to permeate so much of his art and performance during that time. And much of this can be tied directly to his severing of ties with his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the gradual embracing of, what was for him, at least, much more liberated and enlightening creeds. For quite some time, the world had been aware that Michael was no longer the cute little boy who sang “ABC.” He had grown into an incredibly hot, sexy and sensual adult. But now, for the first time, he could freely indulge those fantasies without guilt (or at least without the oppressive fear of being defellowshipped).
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation

To cut to the chase, I see much of what Michael was doing in this phase as a kind of metaphoric shedding of his old skin. And what better way to accomplish this-what better way to celebrate this newfound sense of self-then by posing nude (or nearly so, as the case may be).

Of course, this calls into question some of Michael’s other sometimes contradictory views and apparent double standards on sexuality and nudity (for example, some of his rather judgmental remarks about LaToya’s spread in Playboy). However, perhaps something to keep in perspective is that, while Michael obviously posed for the shoot, the photo was never made public during his lifetime. There must have been a reason for that, as well. And seeing as how Gorman is a photographer who takes great pride in his collection of celebrity photos that celebrate the male physique (and is now openly exhibiting this photo along with his celebrated semi-nudes of Keenau Reeves and others). I can pretty much guess that the decision to keep it hidden away must have been Michael’s, who probably had second thoughts about letting the photo go public.
However, my guess is that this reticence probably had more to do with dissatisfaction over the photo itself than any prurient reticence about his nudity. After all, we were going to be seeing a lot more of Michael in the very near future-literally, that is. So much so, in fact, that by the time of “You Are Not Alone” even many hardened critics were left blushing in awkward embarrassment. We might say that all of this seemed to stem from what became for Michael, during this era, an increasingly and overtly sexualized aspect of his performance. Whether it was the (for many critics at the time) puzzling mixture of auto eroticism, partial nudity  and violence that dominated the second half of the otherwise family friendly “Black or White” video, or the more romantic and classical eroticism of “You Are Not Alone” to the politically blatant exhibitionism of “They Don’t Care About Us” in which Michael finally allowed the world to see, for the first time, the ravages of vitiligo on his body (in all previous videos, any exposed area of his body had been heavily retouched and makeup used to conceal the splotchy effects of the disease). In each of these videos, his nudity or partial nudity was serving a very different purpose, but the one element in common is that, in each case, it was a purpose directly linked to that particular video’s aesthetic and artistic purpose. However, Michael’s tendency to combine eroticism and violence was certainly not lost on critics at the time, and even today it is an aspect of his art that many scholars, critics, and journalists tend to struggle uncomfortably with when attempting to interpret his work. To attempt to offer any such definitive interpretation would also, I think, be well beyond the scope of a single blog post. But it is certainly a relevant point in any discussion of Michael and nudity.
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity...And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity…And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
It may also be prurient to note that it was only with the ushering in of the Victorian era that male nudity became associated with feelings of repulsion and shame, or the with the sexist (and homophobic) view that only a female body was worthy of such adulation.  If we go back to the age of classical art in Greece or Rome, or to the art of the Renaissance, we see that the male body was often celebrated and glorified in art. But the Victorian era pretty much repressed any expression of sexuality at all, and by the time we emerged from that oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, homophobia had tainted the modern view of male sexuality. The pornography industry would become booming business, but it was a business that catered almost exclusively to the tastes of straight men, with women (straight or gay) and gay men being forced to seek obscure and underground alternatives to satisfy their own tastes.  The 1970’s and 80’s were a time in which both women and gay men began to openly assert their rights to “objectify” the male body in the same way that women’s bodies had been objectified for years. Along with this liberation came a proliferation of male sexuality and nudity, expressed both in the porn industry and in the arts, that had not been seen openly since the Renaissance days. In music, we saw the most blatant exploitation of this on MTV, which due to its visual appeal (at that time a novelty for the music industry) gave rise to a whole, new generation of objectified male sex symbols. This would include just about every hair metal band of the day, all of which routinely featured very pretty young males in heavy makeup who (as per the popular joke of the time, “all looked more like chicks than the groupies who pursued them”) and tight spandex pants intended to emphasize their (usually stuffed) bulging crotches. But it would also include the rise of “beefcake” performers like Bruce Springsteen (yes, he had been around for years, but had we ever really noticed just how tight his buns were in those jeans before the “Dancing in the Dark” video?). And to this category I would also add John Cougar Mellencamp’s blatantly sexualized solo dance in “Crumbling Down.”

Then there were the blatantly gender defying performers like Culture Club’s Boy George, and highly sexualized, “exotic” performers like Prince who would push those boundaries of male sexuality to their absolute limit.
And into this mix we have Michael Jackson, whom we had all watched grow up, but was now faced with the artistic dilemma of how to reinvent himself for this new, visual-oriented medium in which, male or female, sex appeal was the obvious driving factor.
Going back to the 1977 quote Michael reportedly said to Tarroborelli, I think Taraborelli may have have, indeed, missed a very important element of that quote in his rush to use it as some sort of proof that Michael had no interest in sex beyond the fantasy element of titillating his fans. “I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy” he had said, before adding that there was also a strong fantasy element to what he was doing-a fantasy element that he was fully willing to exploit. Even at nineteen, this does not sound like the words of a young man repulsed by being found sexy (at all!) but, rather, as one who found an element of thrill in it (even if it didn’t necessarily lead to any kind of consummation in the literal sense). Indeed, at the root of exhibitionism is the excitement and power one feels knowing that total strangers are being aroused by you. The word itself is a misunderstood term, often crudely defined merely as the act of exposing one’s genitals publicly for a sexual thrill. But in reality it is a much more complex term that encompasses many levels of both voyeurism and auto erotic fixation. It is a phenomenon known to many women and men in adult entertainment, who say it’s more than just the money that compels them to do what they do. It is also the empowerment and erotic thrill that comes with knowing they are being lusted after. And indeed, it is at the very heart of why sex has always been (and remains) at the forefront of many performers’ popular appeal-and why most of them so willingly exploit it.yana girl
So was Michael really the blushing man-child, shy to the point of awkwardness about his body? Different stories seem to both confirm and belie this myth. But as so many have pointed out, Michael did transform completely when onstage or in front of a camera. As Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, who witnessed his sizzling 2007 Ebony shoot, so aptly pointed out in their book Remember The Time,  he instantly transformed into “King of Pop mode” in front of a camera. And along with that transformation seemed to come an uncanny knack for turning on the “It” factor.
But this was the mature MJ who had presumably shed most of his youthful awkwardness and shyness. Supposedly.
However, an early story from photographer Lynn Goldsmith indicates that even at a very young age, Michael had no shyness about undressing for the camera (and, indeed, the youthful rooftop photos that resulted from that session are among some of his most sensual from this era). The emphasis in the below quote are mine:

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith worked for Michael for 8 years. Of this photoshoot with Michael Lynn says “We were in his hotel and it’s about 7’o clock, and that’s when the sun was setting and I said ‘You know Michael, up on the roof there’s m…agic light’ so he said ‘Magic light!’ so I said ‘Yeah, you wanna go up there?’ so he said ‘Yeah’ so we snuck out and and we went up to the roof and it was something that he did, Michael started taking his clothes off on the roof which I thought I would get into big trouble for, I mean, he didn’t completely undress but even just taking his shirt off, this is not, you know, a body builder and so you never really knew what he was thinking and that made photographing him very exciting, for me.”~Lynn Goldsmith Plum TV Interview. 1981 Boston

Below: Some of the tantalizing photos that came out of Lynn Goldsmith’s rooftop session and Michael’s impromptu “striptease“:

 

goldsmithgoldsmith2goldsmith3

Similar stories have been told by many other photographers who worked with Michael. Taken collectively, these stories do seem to undermine the popular narrative of Michael Jackson as someone who was awkwardly uncomfortable in his skin. Rather, they all point to just the opposite-that here was a young man who was completely comfortable in his skin, who was confident in his sexuality and the objectification of it, and didn’t seem to mind in the least who knew it-or who enjoyed it.

However, it also seems true that certain photographers could bring out this side of him better than others. This may not be surprising. Photography is, after all, a kind of art, and it takes a special kind of artist to really connect with his or her subject. Virtually every one who ever photographed Michael has commented on how photogenic he was, but there were a handful who seemed to really know how to tap into his inner eroticism and bring it to the forefront. And it may not be surprising that most of those photographers have been women or gay men, who seemed most innately able to capture the essence of Michael’s physical appeal.

Although the Gorman photo was never released in Michael’s lifetime, a much more familiar photo from Greg Gorman is the famous “tarantula photo” which features a profile view of Michael with a huge tarantula crawling across his face. He also shot the well known “face behind the lace veil” photo that Michael originally wanted as the cover of the Bad album.

gorman3

 

gorman4

Both photos exhibit a daring avante-garde appeal that was not common in many of the photos taken of Michael during this era, but which he would begin to experiment with much more brazen daring in the coming decades (with sometimes mixed results; while Michael seemed willing to experiment, his conservatism-and/or that of Sony’s- often won out, resulting in many intriguing photo shoots that were ultimately never used).

Alan Watson’s “pole dancer” shots for the Invincible album remain among my favorites, and some of these ultimately did end up being used for the album, though as with many photo shoots, what ended up being used was only a tiny fraction of what was actually shot. This site was one of the first to feature most of the entire photo shoot, and for years, it remained my most popular post (right up there with “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”). But far from simply finding them visually appealing, I’ve often been intrigued at the idea of why Michael did them in the first place, and could there be any symbolic statement to be attached to them?

The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.
The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.

Maybe an artistic statement about where he was at in this point of his life, and how he viewed his body and sex symbol status? This was, after all, the era from about 1999-2001, a time when the tabloids had really jumped on the “Michael Jackson looks like a freak” bandwagon. But as with practically every project from the 90’s and 2000’s, there seemed to be a concentrated effort to present himself in interesting visual ways that defied such easy labels or categorizations. Indeed, the same man who even as a youth had exhibited confidence in what was then a much more traditional brand of sex appeal was also many steps ahead of the game in his maturity, acutely aware that his current sexual appeal was even edgier and treading far more “taboo” or “forbidden” territory, even as he also seemed to willingly embrace the label of becoming the “beast” we had visualized. The rather bizarre dichotomy of this phenomenon (why women continued to swoon over Michael Jackson and why, for many, he became even sexier in maturity, while the media and tabloid press denounced him as a “freak”) is a subject that has been well hashed out, and more thoroughly, by myself and many other writers elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here except to say that it does add an interesting element to the Watson photos and others of this era like them. The dance pole, long the staple of female strippers and aerial performers (and only in more recent times becoming embraced by male strippers as well) has a long and erotic history, mostly for its phallic symbolic representation. Used for years as a symbol of objectifying the female body, it has also taken on a new status in recent times as a great equalizer for the objectivity of male and female sexuality, as well as an empowering symbol for both sexes who desire to exert control over their own objectification (for women, it can be a way of saying, “I enjoy being sexual and am the one in control” while for a man it can be a way of saying, “I am okay with being viewed as an object”-which in itself is also a powerful and liberating statement.

It is also interesting to look at how his depictions of himself, his body, and sexuality evolved in his short films and performances. We all know that the famous “crotch grab” became a well known part of his dance choreography, and the attempts to analyze what it might have possibly symbolized-if anything-could fill volumes. I have my own theories, which have been discussed in past posts, and indeed, just about every MJ critic and scholar has, at some point, added their own variations. Michael himself said it represented nothing more than a visceral reaction to the music (in an explanation reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s protestations that his controversial pelvic gyrations were just an innocent result of the music driving him). But if we go back and watch Elvis’s very blatant 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle show (before the performance was censored) we can see that this is no innocent, “aw shucks” act. Elvis was a smart cookie who knew exactly what he was doing-and the impact it would have.

Michael was essentially doing his own variant of this act, but as I had noted earlier, I think what became increasingly disturbing for many critics at the time was Michael’s apparent growing propensity for blending sexuality/eroticism with violence, largely because for them there was no apparent context in which to ground it. For many, this will instantly bring to mind the controversial Panther Dance sequence of “Black or White.”

It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.
It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.

In reading Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson (a book I will be reviewing in its entirety in a few weeks when I have finished it) I did come across this interesting passage, which I had not heard before:

“Landis struggled on the set to contain MJ’s sexual expression. At one point, as Michael reached into his crotch, Landis yelled “Cut!” and told Michael to knock it off-this was a family production. Michael defied the instruction, instead unzipping his fly and reaching his hand further into his crotch. Landis stopped filming again and said he was uncomfortable with the move. They asked choreographer Vince Paterson for his opinion; he agreed with Landis. But Michael insisted on calling Gallin, his manager. ‘Sandy was a screaming queen. A very flamboyant homosexual,’ Landis said. ‘Sandy Gallin comes to the set, looks at the playback, and he goes, ‘Do it, Michael! Do it! Do it!’ During the editing process later, Landis says he cut the most objectionable crotch-grabbing images and ‘what’s in the finished piece, I thought was fine.'”-Excerpted from The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, p. 196.

Whoa! Now just imagine…we know how hot, steamy and controversial were the shots that made it into the video! Imagine, then, what must have been on the cutting room floor!

Susan Fast has written that it may have been much more than just the video’s combination of sex and violence that made so many uncomfortable, but rather, the fact that Michael seemed to be indulging in an explicitly kind of feminized auto eroticism, territory that had been for the most part expressly forbidden for male performers (even though it was quite common for women to engage in various forms of auto eroticism in the videos of the day). Just as he had broken down so many barriers in other ways, Michael was also eradicating many of these sexist barriers (what was “ok” and socially acceptable for women to do in videos vs. what was “ok” for a man) and he wasn’t simply slowly eroding those barriers, but screaming until those walls came crashing down, as surely as The Royal Arms Hotel sign in the video. In a single video, Michael brazenly simulated masturbation in front of the camera; he ripped the shirt clean off his body and splashed, in slow motion, into a puddle of water, in as symbolic an act of shedding skin as could possibly be imagined, all while slinging wet strands of hair about his face and screaming like a wild animal…yeah, that was pretty hot and erotic, no doubt. With no mistake.

"Daybreat" by Maxine Parrish
“Daybreat” by Maxfield Parrish

And even when Michael’s eroticism took a more romantic, classical turn, as in “You Are Not Alone” it was in many ways no less disconcerting. The concept of “You Are Not Alone” was taken from the painting “Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish, which featured two semi-nude female subjects in what appeared to be a classical Greek setting. I’ve always felt that the video was a kind of blatant answer to the critics who were dogging the MJ-LMP marriage as a fake; an attempt to show the world that this was a genuine, romantic relationship with real chemistry. (For the record, I never really understood all the critical dismissals of the video as “awkward”; Michael and Lisa’s scenes as they talk intimately and whisper seem to me charmingly endearing). If anything, this video would go down in history as the one in which Michael literally left nothing to imagination-yes, your eyes weren’t deceiving you; if you were watching closely, that really is a flash we get at the :18 mark, when the camera pans around his supine form to an above shot!

No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!
No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!

Yep, that cheesecloth was hiked up pretty high, and no, there was nothing underneath there except Michael as nature made him! That was a pretty brazen shot, and to this day, debate remains as to why it was left in. Was it an accident that was simply never edited out? Some fans just wink it and call it Michael’s “gift” to his fans. Whatever the case may be, it has kept many sharp sighted fans delighted and happily rewinding that pan shot (not to mention being the subject of many gifs) for two decades. What may be more interesting is what we don’t see in that shot-Michael’s bare feet, which remain discreetly hidden beneath a piece of draped cloth. It was said that, for whatever reason, it was the one part of his body he was most self conscious about displaying, which might also explain why the leg warmers and socks stayed on in the Gorman photo.

2e14c988badeb63a6e26e68ad11c56daAnd, just as with the “Black or White” film, there was apparently even more of Michael that didn’t make it into the final cut, according to an article that appeared in The New York Daily News prior to the video’s premier:

“The King of Pop came this close to becoming the King of Porn. Computer whizzes scrambled to digitally alter a shot in Michael Jackson’s new video that shows the superstar floating naked in water. According to the Los Angeles Times, producers panicked after they discovered the scene from the video “You Are Not Alone” shows just a little too much of the 36-year-old singer. The offending anatomy was cut from the shot via computer magic, the paper said. The video, produced to promote Jackson’s latest album, “HIStory,” is due to premiere at 9:30 tonight simultaneously on ABC, MTV and BET. With typical modesty, the 30-minute special is called “Michael Jackson changes HIStory”-Helen Reddy.

This era also marked an increasingly exhibitionistic trend in his live performances, with costumes that were (I firmly believe) purposely designed to draw attention to his assets. The leotard thong of the Dangerous tour and the legendary gold pants of the HIStory tour were obviously intended to have exactly the effect that they had. These costume choices were purposely body conscious; a blatant statement of virility that seemed to match the overly sexualized, aggressive personas that the costumes matched (note that his clothing would usually change over the course of the performance, from these overtly masculine pieces to softer, flowing shirts and less revealing pants as he segued into the philanthropic numbers that usually closed the sets out).

Certainly the surfacing of the Gorman photo, just as with all of these other examples, raises a lot of questions-most notably, how do we (or can we) reconcile these images to the same guy who assured us he was so shy and embarrassed about these matters, who said he would be terrorized if he thought about what “goes through women’s heads” when he is onstage. The answer is that, barring any kind of overly simplified “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” split personality theory, we really can’t. The only thing we can ascertain is that Michael Jackson-like most of us-was an incredibly complex individual and an even more incredibly complex artist, who was always evolving and always looking for ways to push the envelope further. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. Likewise, he was evolving in his own life, and I am convinced that many of these choices represented his personal journey toward freedom of sexual expression, acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and acceptance of his own, physical body as not only something beautiful, but as something that could be molded into great art.  It was a journey that encompassed both his own spiritual and physical awakening; a confidence that managed to bloom despite, or perhaps even as a result of, some very debilitating physical handicaps (vitiligo and discoid lupus). It was a personal metamorphosis that nevertheless. just like every single other aspect of his life, was played out on the world’s stage with all of us watching. And perhaps that, too, wasn’t entirely coincidental. Michael Jackson, following in the footsteps of every sex symbol before him (male or female) knew the power of sexual objectivity in selling his art. No doubt, he probably reaped at least some of the the benefits of exhibitionistic empowerment; after all, nothing is quite so titillating and intoxicating-and ultimately, perhaps, terrifying-as knowing that millions of people all over the world are fantasizing about you.

I think that, ultimately, Michael worked his way through all of these conflicted feelings in the only way he knew how-through his art.

The Truth About Michael and Lip Syncing: A Rare Soundboard Recording May Hold The Key

 

Michael-Jackson-history-world-tour-1996-1997-38122915-640-462As a Michael Jackson fan and researcher, one issue I hear debated quite frequently, and sometimes passionately, is why Michael lip synced so many of his performances during the HIStory tour and later. I have heard everything from the put downs of his work ethic by detractors (and even some “fans”) who insist it was out of laziness, to the excuses by fans that it was due to health issues. Closely on the heels of the latter defense are those who say that it simply isn’t possible to dance and sing at the same time-at least, not on the kind of intense and sustained level that was expected of a Michael Jackson concert. And therein may lie at least some of the truth, but I think it is a little more complex than that. Certainly, Michael had both sang and danced live throughout most of his career, up through the Dangerous era, at least, when lip syncing began to become a more prominent and noticeable part of his act. But let’s not forget that, by the time of the HIStory tour, Michael was in his late thirties, and it simply wasn’t as easy to pull off this feat with the same kind of sustained energy and intensity that he had been able to do in years past.

I am not entirely ruling out the health issues, either. We know, for example, that he suffered from chronic bronchitis throughout much of the HIStory tour, rendering vocally demanding pieces like “Earth Song” near impossible to do live on a nightly basis.

However, one reason that the “he couldn’t dance and sing at the same time” argument doesn’t entirely hold up is because it still doesn’t explain why he would lip sync a ballad like “You Are Not Alone”-which required relatively little physical exertion-while going all out live on some higher intensity dance numbers like “Wanna Be Starting Something.”

On the flip side of this argument, however, the accusations of laziness simply do not jibe with everything we know about this man’s work ethic. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the very same people who will go on and on about how Michael was such a perfectionist with his art will still turn around and perpetuate the argument that Michael simply chose to lip sync out of laziness. We have all heard the stories of how he drove engineers and fellow musicians to frustration with his insistence on perfection, often performing take after take of a track, long past the point when most would have been satisfied and called it a wrap. We know it was not unusual for him to spend years polishing a track or an album to perfection.  The sheer number of outtakes, the hundreds of songs written for every album, the endless hours of slaving away in recording studios just to get one perfect note. the countless hours often spent alone and rehearsing (even to the extent of refusing invitations to parties and other leisure activities) are all testaments to an unquestionable work ethic. This was the same performer who even climbed back onstage to finish a performance after being slammed fifty feet to the ground when a bridge collapsed during a performance of “Earth Song.” It simply doesn’t make sense to think that the same artist who gave so much to his art; who extended such effort into every aspect of his craft, would then choose to conscionably  snooker the public and his fans just because he didn’t feel up to putting forth the effort of singing live on a nightly basis.14402276646e5f6d (1)

But if we can’t chalk it up to mere laziness, as some would love to do, and if excuses about health issues do not entirely satisfy, either, then might there be another, even more plausible explanation?

To answer that question, we have to go back to the accusation of laziness and examine the very root opposition to it. If indeed Michael was such a perfectionist, it makes sense that this same compulsive obsession with detail, perfectionism, and craftsmanship would carry over to his live performances. It may be no coincidence that we actually begin to see and hear more lip syncing infiltrating his live performances at the very same time that he embarked on his own artistic emancipation with Dangerous. And, just as this artistic emancipation begins with Dangerous and peaks with HIstory, so, also, do we begin to see a certain solidification of his live performances. Simply put, it may seem that the most logical explanation for the increased reliance on backup tracking during the HIStory tour had more to do with Michael’s obsession to deliver perfection and, also, in a sense, to use live performance as illusion. Let’s note, however, that there is a huge difference between illusion in performance vs. deception in performance.

In short, the simple truth is that Michael was obviously making no attempt to deceive anyone. If he had been, then the lip synced numbers wouldn’t have been nearly so obvious. (In short, do these people really think that Michael was stupid enough to think that his fans were that stupid? The same fans who knew every word, every note, every inflection and spontaneous “Hee hee” and “Woo hoo” of his records by heart? Gimme a break!). Also, as with many pop performers who routinely utilize dance as part of their live show, Michael had been relying on pre-recorded live backing tracks for years. A pre-recorded live backing track basically performs the same function, although because it isn’t as glaringly obvious, it doesn’t carry quite the same stigma as lip syncing to a studio track. But my point is that if Michael had wanted those songs to sound live (in a way that would truly fool any unsuspecting concert goer) he could have used pre-recorded live backing tracks and easily accomplished that feat.

But, again, we’re talking deception as opposed to illusion. Often when music fans think of lip syncing, they automatically conjure up images of Milli Vanilli or 50 Cent’s disastrous BET performance. Yet lip syncing, certainly  as a staple of “live” television performances, has been around for years. If you grew up with The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, and all of the great musical variety shows of television’s golden era, you knew that no live performance could ever sound that much like the record. Clearly, all of those classic performances from TV-yes, even those early, much beloved Beatles performances-were lip synced. But what’s more, everyone knew it. There was no attempt being made to actively deceive. Rather, it was all about the illusion and a certain amount of suspended belief. In those days, when early technology made the logistics of capturing live performances on TV a near impossibility, lip syncing became the norm. And after such disastrous live incidents as Jim Morrison blurting out “higher” during an Ed Sullivan performance of “Light My Fire,” it was also a way of guaranteeing that there would be no unpleasant surprises during the performance to keep the censors busy. The reality was that such performances were for one purpose only, and that was promoting the single. We were also expected to simply enjoy, without question, seeing our favorite artists “up there” on the screen. Some years later, the music video industry operated on the same principle. Of course, we knew artists were lip syncing in their videos, even when they “appeared” to be performing live. Some of the best videos of the era were tongue-in-cheek spoofs like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” which playfully and creatively acknowledged what everyone obviously knew-that all “performance” videos were simply cleverly crafted illusions of performers lip syncing their greatest hits.

Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love" Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing
Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing

But that was okay; videos were, after all, intended as promotional films, and no one was really expecting that they be performed live. When it comes to a show that fans have actually purchased money to see, however, it often becomes a different story.

But what many don’t realize is that there are essentially two schools of lip syncing, just as there are essentially two aesthetic schools of live music performance. There is, of course, lip syncing with intent to deceive, which is why acts like Milli Vanelli were rightfully brought down. In this case, we had two “artists” who never even sang a note on their studio recordings, let alone in live performance! At least, most acts are lip syncing to their own, recorded voices. In the case of Milli Vanelli, their entire act was a sham.

But while artists like Milli Vanelli are obvious exceptions, most live performances of rock and pop acts fall into one of the two aesthetics mentioned above. They are two aesthetics of performing art which are both very much grounded in the aesthetics of “rockism” on the one hand vs. “popism” on the other. And by the way, for a really great discussion on “rockism” I urge you to check out this post on the Dancing With the Elephant blog.

Rock purists, for example, believe that every concert performance should be a totally live experience. They will argue that this, after all, is what they are paying for. “Rockism” purists value the idea of a musician or singer who can deliver live, warts and all. And therein lies a huge difference. They don’t mind the warts; they embrace them (provided, of course, the musicians aren’t so wasted that they totally blow). For those who value the live aesthetic, believing that every concert should be a totally raw, stripped down, live experience, they don’t mind the occasional flat note; the scratchy rawness of a singer’s throat that is giving out from strained vocal chords; the occasional off note from the lead guitarist, or the excruciating feedback that comes because a musician has stepped too close to the amplifiers. These kinds of “hits and misses” are all part of the thrill of experiencing a live performance; the telltale signs that what one is getting is, indeed, “the real deal,” as purists like to say. Those who are steeped in the “rockism” school of live performance will say, quite earnestly, “If I wanted to hear it just like the album, then I would just stay home and listen to the record.”

And I agree, there is a certain logical validity to that idea. But then, what about those who will go to a concert and then actually complain because what they heard didn’t sound anything at all like the record? My husband has told me the story over and over of going to a Duran Duran concert back in the 80’s, and actually walking out because instead of hearing all of the great radio hits he expected to hear-“Union of the Snake,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” etc-they only played forty-five minutes of “garbage I’d never heard.” Or the horrors of going to a Foreigner concert where, instead of hearing a pristine version of “Feels Like the First Time” he got, instead, a rather spacey Lou Gramm who improvised an endless variation of “Ooh baby” because he most likely couldn’t remember the lyrics (granted, this was right before his brain tumor was diagnosed).

In truth, most concert goers really want a balance between the perfection and familiarity of the studio recordings, and the risks and rawness that come with a live performance. Michael was keenly aware of the need for this balance in order to please most fans, and worked hard to achieve and perfect it-in fact, I daresay, harder than most. However, it’s important to note that Michael’s own aesthetic of live performance was not necessarily one grounded in rockism or its perpetuated belief that live performance exists simply as a means to itself. This brings us to the other school of live musical performance, which is the idea of performance as illusion and as spectacle.

In short, the main reason both schools are at odds is because the rockism aesthetic values the idea of live performance as a kind of purist art, whereas the school of illusion and spectacle places the premium on entertainment. It’s the difference between, say, going to an AC/DC concert, where all one expects is to get all sweaty moshing in the pit, and on the other hand, attending a David Copperfirld show, a Cirque du Soleil performance, or any other theatrical spectacle  where one knows that illusion, suspension of belief, and magic are going to be central aspects of the show. When looked at in this context, we see that neither aesthetic is “right” or “wrong”-they are simply two very different types of performances, intended to elicit a very different aesthetic experience for the audience. With the former, we don’t expect much more than a bunch of sweaty guys onstage, playing their instruments and giving a show. With the latter, however, we expect a certain element of sensory illusion and suspension of belief-in short, we want to be awed. In fact, the topic of how audience expectations vary from one type of performance to another is the subject of this very interesting article from Clyde Fitch.

It seems ironic then that Michael Jackson, an artist who was very much steeped in the aesthetic of live performance as a theatrical experience, is often most harshly judged and criticized by those who are steeped in the rockism aesthetic of live performance, and are thus judging him by a standard that he, himself, never exactly advocated. Just as with Prince, Madonna, and many other big name pop stars who evolved the stage performance into huge extravaganzas, Michael believed that the live concert was-or should be-a theatrical experience. Today, that tradition is continued with stars like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and other heavily choreographed shows that rely on a clever mixture of live vocals and backing tracks, at strategic moments, to create an atmosphere that is more theatrical illusion than, strictly speaking, a concert of raw, live performance.  By the time of HIStory, Michael Jackson’s concerts had indeed become theatrical spectacles-he arrived in a spaceship, came out as an alien, rode on cherry pickers, had a stage setup replete with trap doors where he could disappear at will, or reemerge as some disguised alter ego. He used lighting and back drops to create shadow effects, and had begun to incorporate both visual and audio multi media effects, in which the entire performance often became a seamless blending between illusion and reality.

Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga
Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga

For such performances, where the visual becomes just as important as what is heard (in some cases, even moreso) the idea of a lip synced track was not viewed as some kind of sacrilege, but rather, an essential element of the full aesthetic experience of the performance, whereby the warm familiarity of the track could be usurped by the surprise element of the visual. This was especially important for tracks that were acting out a story or strong visual narrative onstage (the tracks most apt to be lip synced).  In short, the fact that the audience never heard a missed word of “You Are Not Alone” even when he was being jounced around by an exuberant YANA girl, or that they could clearly hear every word of “Earth Song” even when he was miles above their heads in a cherry picker, had nothing to do with deception, but everything to do with cleverly crafted illusion-and the willingness of the audience to suspend belief in favor of the spectacle.  It is no secret that Michael demanded and expected that when fans came to his shows, they would hear the same perfection and careful craftsmanship that he put into his studio recordings. “I want it to sound just like the record,” he famously quipped to Michael Bearden in This Is It, when he became somewhat irritated at being asked how he wanted his songs to sound. “Whatever the record’s doing, that’s what I want.”

"Whatever The Record's Doing, That's What I Want"-Michael Jackson
“Whatever The Record’s Doing, That’s What I Want”-Michael Jackson

The more I have studied Michael’s live concerts from this era, the more it has occurred to me that what he was essentially melding together was all part of a grand concept-or at least, his grand concept-of what a live musical performance should be. It was a unique concept but, nevertheless, one steeped in postmodern ideas of both visual and musical art. In literary postmodern art, concepts such as the pastiche, intertextuality, and temporal distortion were all changing the way stories were being told, and perceived. These concepts were likewise being carried over to other art forms, including both visual and musical. Let’s not forget that it was these postmodern concepts, after all, which gave us a whole new musical art form known as sampling, whereby the idea of building on something familiar (i.e, a familiar hook from a well known song) is used to create something entirely new. In the case of sampling, it’s usually a given that the artist isn’t attempting to pull anything over on the public-quite the contrary, they know that a familiar riff or hook is going to be instantly recognized. That familiarity becomes a kind of foundation or groundwork from which the artist then expands with a new vision. Modern sampling is very much the musical equivalent of pastiche, in which several styles may be blended to form a new, cohesive whole, and also intertextuality, in which a previous work is acknowledged and built into the new text. In live concert, Michael was using his own studio recordings in much the same way, to create a kind of visual and auditory temporal distortion. Rather than viewing the live concert as merely a string of performances tied together, Michael was creating a series of connective narratives, both visual and musically, in which the familiar studio recordings were very much an integral part of the process. Today, these types of theatrical narratives are often very much a part of the modern concert experience. We may rest assured that Michael’s incorporation of pre-recorded tracks into his performances had nothing to do with a slacker mentality, but rather, everything to do with being a visionary artist who was ushering in a whole new, postmodern concept of live performance.

But this still leaves a burning question. Just how much of these latter performances were, indeed, illusion and how much actual, live vocals? And is it possible to always tell? The answer may surprise you, Many make the mistake of simply trusting their ears to tell them when a performance is “live”; conversely, many rely on techniques for spotting a lip synced performance that are not always entirely accurate, either. The truth is that the engineers behind live performances are privy to many industry tricks of the trade. What the audience actually “hears” (via the soundboard output) can be manipulated many ways. “Live” vocals can be spliced with “studio” vocals, or even previously recorded “live” vocals, so that what we may get-rather than a purely live or purely lip synced performance-can, in fact, be a hybrid of both. A performer’s mike can be turned “off” or “on” at any given time throughout a performance-and, if turned “off” can be instantly turned “on” to allow a live vocal to take over from a tracked vocal.

Michael had, by the time of the HIStory tour, become a master of all the tricks and illusions of the trade. He knew when he needed to “save” his voice and when it was absolutely essential that he “sing out”; he knew what parts could safely be lip synced without loss of quality or integrity and what numbers-or what part of a number-absolutely had to be live. And I will stress again, this was not by any means the work of a slacker, but rather, the work of a perfectionist craftsman who knew, instinctively, how to give the best theatrical experience possible to an audience.

So...Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?
So…Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?

However, for those of us who are still, admittedly, more steeped in the purist tradition of rockism, I thought it would be interesting to take a hard look at some of Michael’s performances during the HIStory era and actually analyze how many were performed absolutely live. Again, the results may surprise.  It turns out that at least one well known  performance that has been generally thought of as a mostly lip synced performance was, in fact, completely and genuinely live-and we have the hard evidence to prove it! However, obtaining that “evidence” requires much more than just listening to the concerts or downloading videos of twenty year old performances off of Youtube. As I stated previously, it isn’t always a matter of trusting the ear, and certainly not of trusting the ear on  twenty year old audios that had already been filtered through the sound board output before even reaching the audience! No, this is the kind of evidence that requires going to the actual source, and these are extremely rare-the soundboard mixes! Only there can we get the “real” story of what was unfolding behind the microphone. And, as stated, the results will surprise many, and hopefully, will put to rest some long standing debates regarding Michael’s use of lip syncing vs. singing live. At any rate, the soundboard mix for one of Michael’s most well known late 90’s performances-the 1996 Brunei performance of “Earth Song”-not only provides those answers, but offers some interesting insights into the whole process.

Michael With The Sultan of Brunei's Family
Michael With The Sultan of Brunei’s Family

The private concert at Brunei in July of 1996 was performed for the Sultan and his family, but what many do not know is that the Sultan had specifically requested to hear Michael sing “Earth Song” live.  However, the video that eventually surfaced of that performance led many to believe that this was simply one more lip synced version of “Earth Song,” a less than pure hybrid, with  the improvised “Tell me what about it” ad lib at the end being the only true, undisputed “live” segment of the performance.

But did people really expect that Michael was going to insult the Sultan by giving a lip synced performance of a song he had specifically requested to hear live?  The soundboard audio of that performance certainly tells a different story! So then, why do so many people believe it is lip synced when they watch the version commonly available on Youtube? Those answers become more clear when the soundboard audio is thoroughly analyzed, and compared to the performance version on Youtube. It is the same performance, note for note. But the subtle differences between the soundboard audio (which is most likely what the Sultan heard) vs. what was filtered and pumped to the crowd are enough to cue us to some of the “tricks” of the trade.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to acquire this rare soundboard audio of Michael’s Brunei “Earth Song” performance about six years ago, right after Michael died. I remember my husband saying that this audio proves beyond a doubt that this performance of “Earth Song” was indeed live, and after listening to it a few times, I reached the same conclusion. The vocals here, even on the chorus, are much grittier and do not have the clear, pristine tone of his studio version. You can hear the occasional fluctuations in breath and volume, as he moves either too far back or to close in on the microphone. You can hear the occasional flatness of some of the notes. Also, there are  times when his voice dips into the lower registers of his vocal range, something he often did naturally when singing live, but which was usually “cleaned up” in final takes. But the real giveaway is during the shouted call-and-response breakdown, when the very real strain he was putting on his vocal chords is quite evident (not to mention, his enunciation of the lyrics during this segment are much more clearly audible than what we would normally hear in the studio version).

Over time, I had somewhat put these findings out of mind, although I would occasionally debate with some fans that the Brunei “Earth Song” vocals were indeed live, and not just the ad libs at the end. But since this audio was not exactly something I could just “link” to and prove the debate for once and all, it was not an easy debate to win. It wasn’t until recently, when I saw the issue of Michael’s lip syncing again being raised among some fans from opposing factions on social media, that it occurred to me to revisit the “Earth Song” Brunei soundboard mix and give it a fresh listen. Imagine my horror when I discovered that we no longer had the file! Thus began another earnest search to find it again, which was not easy after six years (much of the deluge of MJ bootleg and rare audio versions of performances that were available six years ago have since pretty much disappeared). It took a lot of work, but eventually we were able to track down another copy of this audio.

Here you can compare the soundboard audio side-by-side with the performance clip.

Brunei “Earth Song” Performance:

Brunei soundboard recording of Earth Song:

Of particular note is his pronunciation of words like “war,” which has a much deeper intonation here than on the studio version, where it is pronounced very pristinely. Notice, also, how much deeper and breathier is his pronunciation of the line, “Now I don’t know where we are.” As mentioned previously, the entire call-and-response section is much raspier than what we hear on the studio track, and certain phrases are far more clearly enunciated. Note, for example, how clearly the phrase “what about animals” is enunciated, as well as the following questions “What about elephants/Have we lost their trust?” None of these phrases are pronounced that clearly on the studio track. When he sings shortly after, “This is what I believe” we can hear from the slightly ragged enunciation of “believe” that his vocal chords are indeed being pushed to the max; he even sounds as though he could be experiencing a bit of “throat bleed” here, a common condition when singers are exerting their vocal chords beyond range for a sustained amount of time. Moving into the latter segment of this breakdown, there is also a different emphasis on the word “holy” when he sings the line “What about the holy land/torn apart by creed” and again, a much clearer pronunciation of the line “What about children dying?”

The only difference between what we hear here, on the soundboard audio, and what was actually pumped out to the crowd (the audio we “hear” on the video version) is that much of the raspiness has been cleaned up, especially during the call-and-response segment, but clearly, note for note, it is the same performance. It proves unequivocally that Michael absolutely did perform this piece 100% live, from start to finish. What we are hearing on the soundboard audio is exactly what was being picked up by Michael’s microphone!

And here is the real clincher, if you’re still not convinced. Since no one has ever disputed the authenticity of the live ad libs at the end, give a close listen to his “Tell me what about it” ad libs in both the soundboard and video versions. They sound exactly the same, don’t they? Now go back and compare them to, first, the call-and-response shouts heard on the video version, and then the call-and-response shouts of the soundboard version. Notice anything? On the soundboard version, the ad libbed segment is being sung in the exact same, raspy tone as what we just heard during the call-and-response segment. This was purely Michael, whose vocal chords had just come out of the grueling, near three minute ordeal of that breakdown segment. As he makes the transition from that segment to the ad libs, it is clearly the same voice! But when we listen to the video version, there is a clear shift which seems to occur right about the time of his series of shouted “woos” that bridge the close-out of the apocalyptic call-and-response section with the “Tell me what about it” ad libs. It is a very subtle shift, but it is this minor illusion  which, for many years, has led some to falsely believe that this was a hybrid performance. In other words, it would have been somewhere in here that the audio output was switched “on” so that what was pumped out to the crowd would have been the pure, live vocal. If all this sounds a bit confusing, think of it as the same process of water passing through a filter. It’s the same water coming out as going in, except that a lot of the impurities have been removed or “cleaned up.” What we learn from analyzing this performance is that Michael was not lip syncing. He was delivering a live vocal, at full capacity. But the backstage technology simply allowed some of the rougher aspects to be cleaned up and smoothed out.

It is certainly easy to understand why Michael uncharacteristically opted to have “Earth Song” be the closing song of this particular concert, another telltale sign that he intended this to be a purely live performance.

It also really serves to cast a whole, new light on many of Michael’s other 90’s era performances and beyond. There is no doubt that Michael did begin to rely on backing tracks quite extensively during the late 90’s (though I think I have been able to make a fairly good argument as to why). Although I believe that it was with the Dangerous and HIStory tours that Michael most closely fulfilled and solidified the concept of a Michael Jackson concert, it did sometimes seem that he had sacrificed the joyous spontaneity of early live performances in favor of a theatrical extravaganza that, over time (due to the proliferation of video and social media, which allowed for viewings and comparisons of multiple performances) became predictable; even a little formulaic. We could predict that he would ride the cherry picker during the climactic moment of Earth Song” (though we did get the occasional surprises, such as Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu mooning of the audience, or the impassioned Korean fan who leaped onto the cherry picker with Michael, or the awful bridge collapse in Munich); we knew that the “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” duet would segue inevitably into either “She’s Out of My Life” or “You Are Not Alone” and that a “random” girl who was not really random at all would be brought onstage for the obligatory dance-and-grope session; that a Jackson 5 medley would always culminate in a rousing performance of “I’ll Be There” (usually performed live, by the way) and that, inevitably, every show would end with “Man in the Mirror.” It was a well oiled machine that worked,and though there would occasionally be some slight variations and tweakings of the formula, it was clear that Michael knew what his fans expected and wanted. Michael’s performances were always, ultimately, a blend of audience expectation coupled with his own determined, driving need to deliver perfection.

It may be somewhat ironic, then, that many of his most acclaimed performances, from Motown 25 to the Brunei performance of “Earth Song” to the rehearsal clips from This Is It, are also some of his most stripped down and rawest. Give Michael Jackson his complete bag of tricks and wizardry, and yes, he could create magic. But when those things were most stripped away was where his true artistry shined.

If it proves anything, the soundboard audio of Michael’s “Earth Song” performance goes to show that he was still more than capable of delivering live, and what’s more, of delivering live at full capacity. It also proves beyond doubt that he may, in fact, have been performing live throughout the HIStory era much moreso than has often been credited to him, and that it may be high time we started analyzing a lot more of these performances beyond just the commonly available video versions.

The truth is in what the microphone “hears” and picks up. The sound board preserves it. In this case, it stands as indisputable evidence that at least one of Michael’s most heatedly debated 90’s performances was, in fact, a totally live vocal performance.

UPDATE: 11/27/15

To further test the theory, we synchronized the mp3 and video using Adobe Premier Probe CS6. The frame rates of the mp3 and youtube are slightly different, making it very difficult to synch the audio with the video for anything over 20 seconds – however it is possible to synch segments of the audio/video perfectly.  This could be done throughout the entire clip – but that would be cheating.  This difference also makes it fairly impossible for anybody to look at the video and compare it to the audio and say that he is lip syncing.  The dead giveaway is as subtle as three breaths. This is very early in both the video and audio, during the song’s first verse. There are three very audible intakes of breath, which the microphone picks up. The audio of those breaths synchronizes exactly with those moments in the clip when we can visibly see him do those breath intakes. What this tells us is that this recording is, indeed most likely a genuine microphone feed.