Summer Rewind Series, Week 4: Invincible (Parts 3 & 4)

NOTE: The following two conversations were originally posted last October 20 and 27, 2011. To read the original posts and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Invincible, Part 3: That Amazing Voice

Joie:  I have been a Michael Jackson fan literally for as long as I can remember. Michael has been the one constant in my life from my earliest memories at age three. He was just always there. And I can remember being absolutely mesmerized by the sound of his voice. I have very vivid memories of sitting in the basement of our house when I was about 7 or 8 years old, on the floor in front of the very large stereo speakers, album cover in hand while I listened intently as he sang to me. Every day, I would spend hours down there alone – just me and the stereo and my albums – volume as high as I could get it without my Dad shouting for me to turn it down before I blew out the speakers. There was just something about that voice that captivated me and I have remained fascinated by it my entire life.

Michael is always revered as being a musical genius; he is always touted for his electrifying live performances, his gravity-defying dance moves, his astronomical sales records. But oftentimes, his amazing voice seems to take a backseat to all of that and I’ve never really understood that because he truly is one of the most talented vocalists to ever play the game, and Invincible is the perfect album to talk about when highlighting his broad vocal range.

Michael’s long-time vocal coach, Seth Riggs, explained once that Michael had an extraordinary vocal range. Riggs described him as a high tenor, or Countertenor with a range of 3.6+ octaves. E2 to B5, or 44 notes by the middle of the 1980s. And by the ’90s, Riggs said that his range had expanded to 4 octaves, allowing him to reach a few additional lower notes while still maintaining his highest ones. And that was all before utilizing falsetto – a technique used by male singers to reach notes outside of their usual (normal) range. Add to that the fact that Michael also had the ability to sing in staccato, singing complex rhythms in perfect timing.

Now, I am no student of the voice, by any means. But, what all of that technical mumbo-jumbo says to me is that Michael had one incredibly versatile vocal range and it only got better with age. And his massive body of work – and Invincible in particular – is evidence of that. In fact, it is the thing that I love most about this wonderful, incredibly underrated album:  the fact that it allows the listener the opportunity to hear Michael’s entire vocal range, from the smooth falsetto of “Butterflies” to the surprisingly rich baritone of “2000 Watts.”

Willa:  I’m certainly no expert about this either. In fact, I know very little about the technical aspects of singing and making music, but here’s an interesting YouTube video that gives an idea of his vocal range. And apparently that incredible range was no accident. I mean, part of it was sheer, innate talent, as we can see in the songs he recorded as a child. “Ain’t No Sunshine” just knocks me out. But there are also few singers – especially pop singers – as knowledgeable and as dedicated as he was to protecting and improving his voice.

Joie:  No, it wasn’t an accident, you’re right. He worked tirelessly at maintaining and perfecting that God-given talent.

Willa:  It’s true. Back in the 1980s, he planted a story in the media that he was sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber (one of his first media hoaxes – the first of many) and someone asked his sister Janet about it. She said she hadn’t seen a hyperbaric chamber around the house anywhere, but that if he was using one, it probably had something to do with his voice. He was just fanatical about caring for his voice. And Will.i.am tells a story about working with him in the studio. They had just about finished up this one song but decided they needed to add a little five-second snippet of his voice. Will.i.am says he warmed up for over an hour so his voice would be fully “open” when he recorded that five-second piece. Will.i.am says he couldn’t believe it, but of course, while that little segment took less than a minute to record, it would be preserved forever as part of that song, and he wanted it to be just right.

And he had an amazing range not only in the pitch of his voice, but in the texture of his voice as well. There are moments where his voice sounds so beautiful to me, just indescribably beautiful. But then there’s “Privacy,” where his voice isn’t beautiful at all. In fact, it’s really rough and raspy, almost gruff. My son has been running cross-country, and that’s how his voice sounds after a really hard run – really raspy and ragged. It reminds me of that expression of being “run ragged” – he’s been running so hard his voice has become ragged. And that’s how Michael Jackson’s voice sounds in “Privacy,” like he’s just been “run ragged” by the press and paparazzi. And of course, that supports the meaning of the song. I’m always fascinated by his ideas and the many techniques he uses to convey his ideas, and in this case, he’s conveying meaning not only through the words he’s singing, but through the texture of his voice as he’s singing those words.

Joie:  That is very true, Willa. He was really great at bending his voice in order to convey a certain mood or feel. His voice really was his instrument and he was a master at it. His range was so versatile and yet, so distinctive at the same time. For example, on “Butterflies” his vocal performance was so crystal clear and beautiful, gliding effortlessly from the smooth tenor in the first verse to the sweet falsetto that we all love so much in the second verse. His vocals on that song propelled “Butterflies” to #13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and to #2 on the Hot R&B Hip/Hop Singles chart. And that was all on airplay alone since Sony refused to release it as an official single. He repeats this tenor to falsetto movement on the very next song, “Speechless,” where his magical voice just soars above the building climax. But the a cappella snippet that opens the tune really sets the pure, innocent tone for the entire song – once again, using the quality of his voice to convey the mood that he’s going for.

Willa:  Absolutely, and that’s such a great example. You know, it takes a lot of courage to expose your innermost feelings and let yourself be honest and vulnerable, and Michael Jackson had that kind of courage. It’s one of the things that has drawn me to him for so many years, since I first heard “Ben” as a little girl, and we see that honesty and vulnerability in the a cappella intro to “Speechless.” Then the strings come in, and the other instruments, and the choir, and it becomes incredibly lush and beautiful. And then at the end the instruments and background vocals drop away, and he’s alone and emotionally vulnerable again. It’s like he’s dropping all the pretense and letting himself be emotionally naked. It’s almost too much for me.

Joie:  Another great example is the song “Shout.” Now, I know that this one isn’t actually on the Invincible album but, it was intended for Invincible and only missed being included by a hair when it was replaced at the last minute by “You Are My Life,” and it was released as the B-side to the “Cry” single. But I mention it here because it is another great example of how Michael frequently used the quality of his voice to convey the mood and paint a picture. Before even processing what he’s saying, you instantly get the sense that this is a song about indignation and frustration at the world’s problems – all through the quality of his voice.

But “Shout” is also a wonderful example of his ability to sing in staccato. Something he does better than most, executing complex rhythms in perfect timing. We’ve seen him do this many times in the past on songs like “Jam” and “Tabloid Junkie.” It is almost like he’s rappin’ and he’s really good at it. You know, I heard him say once in an interview that he wasn’t very confident in his rappin’ ability but, I think this song shows that he shouldn’t have been so apprehensive about it. I’m not saying that he was a natural rapper by any means but, I do think he could certainly hold his own and I think this song proves it.

But, for me, the real revelation of Invincible has got to be “2000 Watts.” There is no doubt in my mind that if this song had been released on the posthumous Michael album instead of Invincible, there would have been a vicious outcry from fans insisting that this song wasn’t him. There has been a great deal of speculation over the years that his voice was somehow digitally altered for this song but, that is not the case. The rich and surprisingly deep baritone on this track is all Michael (with an assist from Teddy Riley on the speaking parts) in his natural voice – no digital tinkering added. And it is amazing! This has got to be one of my all-time favorite songs simply because it does showcase just how versatile, adaptable and skillful Michael really was with his instrument – which is that amazing voice.

Willa:  OK, so here’s an embarrassing story. I was driving the first time I listened to Invincible – I bought the CD, unwrapped it while walking out to my van, popped it into the car stereo, and listened to it as I was driving home. So I’m driving and listening, “2000 Watts” comes on, and there’s this guy singing a fairly deep intro. I’m waiting for Michael Jackson to come in with the tenor part, but the intro is lasting a really long time. And then the song’s over. So I thought, oh, I must have been distracted by driving and missed the main part of the song, so I hit the replay button. The song starts up again, there’s the intro, more intro, more intro, I’m waiting for the tenor part to start, it’s not coming, and then the song is over again. What the heck? So I actually pulled over into a parking lot, dug out the liner notes, and read, “Lead vocals:  Michael Jackson, Background vocals:  Michael Jackson.” I was stunned. “That guy” singing the low “intro” part was him, and I hadn’t recognized him at all. I couldn’t believe it. Michael Jackson’s voice has been in my head for over 40 years, since I was 9 years old. There are times when his voice feels as familiar to me as my own hands. And I had just listened to him sing “2000 Watts” twice and hadn’t recognized him.

As you know, I love his lower voice. His high voice, when it’s soaring as it does sometimes, is so incredibly beautiful to me, and there are these lovely high trills scattered throughout Invincible that I simply love, like right after the bridge in “Don’t Walk Away.” But his low voice just does something to me. The first time I heard it was on “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough.” I was a teenager, and that song was a revelation. The line “I’m melting like hot candle wax” has been making me blush for more than 30 years now, and his low voice on that song definitely adds to the mood. It is so sensual.

Joie:  Willa, you blush so easily! But, I know what you mean. That low rumble in the background of “Don’t Stop,” towards the end where he sings, “Don’t stop, Baby…. Come on, Baby…. Don’t stop, Darling,” – really, really HOT!!

Willa:  Heavens, Joie! You just completely fogged up my bifocals. Oh my. So, what were we talking about? Oh that’s right, that amazing but unsettling low voice on “2000 Watts.” To me, that voice feels completely different somehow from his low voice on “Don’t Stop” – it’s conveying a different mood and expressing a different idea. As you pointed out, the voice on “2000 Watts” doesn’t even sound like him at first, and I wonder if that startling unfamiliarity is intentional.

There are several recurring themes on Invincible. One is the theme of inarticulateness we talked about last week – this repeated idea that he’s unable to speak or communicate in a meaningful way so that others understand him. Another is the theme of alienation – that he’s the same person he’s always been, but we can’t recognize him. He’s the same, yet he’s become alien to us. We see that theme suggested over and over on Invincible, in everything from the album cover art, to lyrics, to his voice on “2000 Watts.” I played that song repeatedly the first few days I had Invincible, and I literally had to train myself to recognize that low growling voice as his voice. It felt really important to me to do that because it was so unsettling to hear his voice and not recognize him.

Joie:  It’s really interesting to me that you say that because, for me, it wasn’t that I didn’t recognize his voice. Just the opposite in fact. It immediately sounded like Michael to me – just Michael singing in a decidedly lower tone of voice than we were used to hearing him. But, it works. And it works great! And, as you said, I LOVE this lower voice of his. I only wish he had used it a little more often so that the world could be aware of what the fans already know … which is the fact that he really did have such a wonderful and varied vocal range.

Well, since we began this series with the first song on the album, it’s sort of fitting that we end it with the last song on the album so, next week, we’ll be wrapping up our Invincible celebration with “Threatened.” And since it is Halloween week, the spooky nature of the song will be perfect!

Celebrating Invicible, Part 4: Threatened!!!

Willa:  This week we’re looking at “Threatened,” a very unusual horror story told from the point of view of the monster, who’s trying to figure out why everyone is so frightened of him.

“Threatened” begins with an introduction by Rod Serling, but it’s more philosophical and psychological than frightening. As Serling says, “Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction.” He goes on to say, “A monster has arrived in the village,” a typical scenario in horror movies, but then tells us, “The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown.” So instead of encouraging us to feel fear, as horror movies typically do, he’s asking us to step back and analyze that fear. He concludes the intro with “Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster,” and we immediately hear Jackson’s voice singing, “You’re fearing me.” Suddenly we realize that he’s the monster. And he’s trying to get inside our heads and understand us.

Joie:  It’s very interesting you should describe the monster that way because that is not the feeling I get from this song at all. It is absolutely told from the monster’s point of view but, I don’t believe he’s clueless as to why everyone is frightened. Just the opposite, actually. He knows why they’re afraid and he likes it. Not only does the monster know exactly what he’s doing but, he enjoys doing it. He is obviously having great fun scaring all of the people.

You should be watching me, you should feel threatened.
While you sleep, while you creep, you should be threatened.  
Every time your lady speaks, she speaks to me, threatened.  
Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me.  

It’s as if he’s celebrating, reveling in the effect he has on those around him. He is something to behold and he knows it and he is taunting those who look down on him and mock him. They are jealous of his beauty, his talent, his power and he throws it in their faces. “You’re fearing me, ’cause you know I’m a beast,” he sings. It’s the kind of trash talking that you hear from sports fans and others about to go into battle on any given court, field, board game or boardroom.

Willa:  Well, Joie, I agree that he was certainly “something to behold!” And I agree this song has a defiant, in-your-face edge to it – “trash talking” is a good description. And it may be that in some ways he enjoyed people’s fearful response to him. But I also think he sees that fear as really dangerous, and he’s trying to understand where that fear comes from.

To me, this is another one of those songs that is directly addressing the current circumstances of his life. The media and a fairly large percentage of the population are treating him like a monster, and he’s exploring the reasons why. As the title suggests, he thinks people see him as a monster because they feel “threatened” by him, but why? What exactly is so threatening to so many people? What are they so scared of?

This to me is the crucial question at the center of “Threatened,” and the answers he suggests are fascinating. I tend to think people were threatened by the way he blurred boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality, but he points to a different source – and he has good reasons. After all, the frenzied media criticism started before he really began transgressing those boundaries. He released “Leave Me Alone,” a funny but defiant response to the media hysteria, in 1989 when his skin was still fairly dark.

Also one of his heroes, Charlie Chaplin, was demonized in the press just like he was – Charlie Chaplin was treated like a monster, a “moral leper,” for more than 30 years – yet Chaplin wasn’t challenging the same kinds of social boundaries Michael Jackson was. We see a similar demonization of Elvis, and Barry Gibb, and Barbra Streisand, and Britney Spears. In fact, we see this sort of mob mentality occurring fairly regularly throughout our history where the press and the public turn against a popular performer in really vicious ways, and I think Michael Jackson is using “Threatened” to both push back against that mob mentality as well as try to understand it.

As we see in the lyrics you cited, he suggests there are deep psychological reasons for these ugly witch hunts, including feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. After all, he’s a sex symbol – “Every time your lady speaks, she speaks to me, threatened” – and a very talented, very handsome, very successful rock star – “Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me.” He’s also a celebrity, and his fame has made him so much larger than life that no one else can measure up, so now there’s an impulse to knock him off his pedestal and cut him down to size.

Joie:  Willa, while I can agree that this song is addressing the usual monsters in Michael’s own experiences, I really don’t think that he’s trying to figure them out at all. That’s not what’s going on here. I don’t believe he is suggesting any kind of reasons for the fear and I don’t believe he’s even asking the question ‘why are you afraid.’ Instead, I feel he’s telling us that he already knows exactly what’s going on. He knows why they’re afraid. And not only is he telling them that he understands it, but he’s letting them know that they’re right. They have good reason to fear him. “I’ve got a spell on you,” he sings. Then he says this:

Your worst nightmare, it’s me I’m everywhere  
In one blink I’ll disappear, and then I’ll come back to haunt you  

He’s letting them know that he’s not going away. They should feel threatened because they can’t get rid of him. He’s unstoppable. They’ve tried their best – Sneddon, Dimond, the Chandlers, the tabloids – they’ve all tried their best to bring him down and they may have knocked him off his game for a minute but, he’s not done. They didn’t finish him off and now he’s back, better than ever. They can’t silence him, they can’t control him, they can’t reach him… they can’t break him. So, essentially, he is ending this album on the very same triumphant note that he began it on:  by telling all those who tried to stop him that, after all of their efforts and all that he’s been through, he’s still here. They “can’t believe it, …can’t conceive it.” But it is the very reason why they should feel threatened.

The chours of “Threatened” that I cited earlier is the same sort of defiant battle cry that we saw in the opening lines of “Unbreakable.”

Now I’m just wondering, why you think  
That you can get to me, with anything  
Seems like you’d know by now  
When and how, I get down  
And with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around  

It is the exact same message, just different words. In essence, with Invincible, he has just taken the listener on a journey that has now come full circle. This message – that he is still standing, “steady laughin’, while surfacing” – is so important to him that he felt the need to repeat it at the end of the album. Just to make sure we got it, in case we missed it the first time around:

You should be watching me, you should feel threatened  

He sounds glorious on this song, as if he is having the best time recording these vocals. As I said before, it almost sounds as if he is celebrating, and the menacing tone of his voice on this track is laced ever so slightly with pure joy. He clearly enjoys the role of the monster on this song and he’s having fun with it. And I believe he sounds joyful because he is defiantly reminding us that he is still here and his art and his ideas – his love – will forever be unbreakable. They can knock him off that pedestal and try to cut him down to size but, it will never really work. He’s not going away and they should be afraid of that. “Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me.”  

Willa:  Wow, Joie, this is so intriguing to me. When we first started tossing around the idea of doing a post on “Threatened” and we each said how much we loved it, I just assumed we saw it the same way and loved it for the same reasons. I can’t believe we saw this song so differently. I really do love “Threatened” – it’s one of my favorite songs on Invincible – but I would never have said it was glorious or joyful or celebratory. But I have to say, I’ve been listening to it a lot lately, and I’m starting to come around to your way of thinking. Before, I was so focused on how horrible it must be to have everyone think you’re a monster, I just couldn’t imagine anything joyful about it. But you’re right, that’s also a pretty powerful position to be in, and he does seem to be “reveling” in that power, as you said earlier. He’s definitely flexing his muscles on this song, and he’s enjoying it. Wow, you’ve really expanded the way I think about this song, and that is so interesting to me.

I still see “Threatened” as an insightful psychological study, though, which is what drew me to this song in the first place. I think he’s exploring the reasons why this ugly mob mentality erupts every so often against popular performers, and the reasons he identifies are fascinating and have to do with the nature of celebrity itself, and that weird double-vision of celebrities being both very familiar to us and yet essentially unknown. You know, the scariest horror movies aren’t about monsters from outer space; they’re about someone or something trusted and familiar becoming alien and scary. The father in The Shining goes insane and attacks his own family. The parents in The Omen are murdered by a son who isn’t really their son. The daughter in The Exorcist is possessed by demons and becomes unknowable. The mother in Rosemary’s Baby discovers her baby is devil spawn. The scariest monsters aren’t Godzilla and King Kong – they’re a favorite doll or teddy bear or the family dog or a parent or child or trusted neighbor when they turn murderous and attack the ones who love them and trust them most.

Michael Jackson was so familiar to us in so many ways. Perhaps most important was his incredible capacity for empathizing with an audience. Over and over, people talk about this deep connection they felt with him. When he sang, you felt like he knew what you were thinking and feeling, and was expressing your own thoughts and emotions back to you. As he sings in “Threatened,” “I’ve got a spell on you,” and he did have a spell on us. We were spellbound by everything he did. And he wasn’t just a celebrity; he was a celebrity who grew up in front of us. We felt like we’d known him since he was a boy. So he seemed very familiar in that sense also.

Plus, he was such a celebrity and so incredibly well known, so there was that kind of familiarity also. As he goes on to sing in “Threatened,” “it’s me, I’m everywhere.” And it’s true, he was everywhere, and he still is. His face, his music, his dance moves, his glove and fedora, his whole iconography – it’s truly amazing, his influence is everywhere. I was watching a Schoolhouse Rock video with my son the other day, the one called “Dollars and Sense,” and suddenly the cartoon character moonwalks past a music store. He’s even in Schoolhouse Rock. You can’t escape him, just like you can’t escape the zombies in a horror flick.

Joie:  Oh, Schoolhouse Rock! I used to love those things. But exactly! That’s the point I was trying to make here. We can’t escape him because he is everywhere. Just like he tells us in this song,  “Your worst nightmare, it’s me I’m everywhere / In one blink I’ll disappear, and then I’ll come back to haunt you.” He knows that his influence is inescapable; he knows that no matter what they try to do to him, they will never be able to fully escape him and so, he taunts them with his words:   “You should be watching me, you should feel threatened.”  

Willa:  I agree. But then he grew up and changed, and some people began to wonder if we really knew him as well as we thought. There began to be that deep, unspeakable fear of the familiar becoming alien and “threatening.” Then a man accused him of molesting his son, and that fear exploded. And as he tells us in “Threatened,” we can’t escape that fear because it’s not coming from him, it’s coming from us – it’s within us, within our own minds. It’s “the dark thoughts” inside our own heads:

You’re fearing me, ’cause you know I’m a beast  
Watching you when you sleep  
When you’re in bed, I’m underneath  
You’re trapped in halls, and my face is the walls  
I’m the floor when you fall  
And when you scream it’s ’cause of me  
I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head  
I heard just what you said  
That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me  

This song just takes my breath away. It seems so brilliant to me on so many levels, with deep psychological insights, especially in the way it captures that complicated mix of fear and familiarity people felt for him.

But before we started talking, Joie, I’d never thought about that fear as a potentially powerful force for him – something he could use to move us in deep psychological ways – and that complicates this all still further. I’ve come to agree with you, it does sound like he’s reveling in that power, and for me that just opens up a whole new way of seeing this song. Wow.

Joie:  Well, Willa, you’ve made some great points about the familiar becoming scary and threatening and I find that all very fascinating. But for me, “Threatened” has always been one of my favorite songs on the Invincible album and from the very first time I heard it, I have always felt that this was a song of triumph and victory. A song of revelry or rejoicing. It’s an exhibition of sorts. ‘Look at me, I am here and I am magnificent!’ That’s the message I get from this song. That is what I hear every time I listen to it. And again, to me, it is a reaffirmation of the very same message we hear on the first song on the album. And to some that may seem like a bit of an ego trip or a bold statement for someone to make but, we’re talking about Michael Jackson here. The very same artist who floated a 32-ft. statue of himself down the Thames River to promote an album. That stunt certainly got people talking, and I imagine that “Threatened” was probably intended to do the same thing.

In his much-anticipated book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel tells us that Michael had intended on making a horror-themed short film for this song complete with cutting edge special effects but, of course that was scrapped when Sony pulled promotion. So, we’ll never know what he had in store for us with this one but, I’m sure like the song itself, it would have been something glorious.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. These two blogs are some of my favorites on your site. I agree with every one of your observations. Do either of you remember that one particular question an interviewer asked Michael, with glee, about how a lot of people expected him to lose his voice at puberty and if he was worried about it. And MJ said nothing was going to happen to his voice, it was just going to go on. He sounded so sure about it. And he was right, too–every other boy singer in the world might lose the high range, but it wasn’t going to happen to him. I agree that his vocal virtuosity is a phenomenon that should be celebrated more. It was a wonder.

  2. Somewhere there is a demo of Michael rapping…I just know it!

  3. Unbelievably cute is right. The essence of that little boy lived on and deepened in the man. I can’t believe Mr. Abernethy actually straight out and asked Jackie how much money they made. No wonder the kids had to be groomed by Motown about what to say when interviewed. Also interesting how smoothly Jackie told the “official” story about Diana Ross discovering them. Submitting to interviews is a bit like walking on seemingly solid ground that shifts to become quicksand. Know what line you must toe and proceed with extreme caution.

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