As 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.