Joie: You know, Willa, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael’s unreleased songs. Actually, that’s something I tend to think about a lot. And that rumored vault that is said to exist somewhere with hundreds of songs in various stages of completion. Doesn’t that thought just blow your mind? To think that that could be true?
Willa: It does, and I think it is true. Joe Vogel has conducted dozens of interviews with people who worked on those songs, and apparently there’s an intriguing variety of styles and genres – not just the many different styles we’ve seen Michael Jackson work in before, but also some country, some lullabies, even an album of classical music he composed.
Joie: Well, you know they recently announced the release of a new album, Xscape. And supposedly it’s going to be all new music that we’ve never heard before. Or, I should say music that hasn’t previously been released on a proper album, since some of us have gotten pretty good over the years at snatching songs when they’re leaked online. So since the title of this new project is called Xscape, I’m guessing there’s a good chance that song will be on the album.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard it will be on there. In fact, if you get the two-CD set there will be two versions: the one MJ created with Rodney Jerkins before he died and one that has been “contemporized” by Jerkins.
Joie: I can’t help wondering though what some of the others might be.
Willa: Me too. I’ve been looking for an official track list but haven’t found one yet, though I’ve found several unofficial ones. I imagine they’ll release the official one soon. And apparently all of the songs on Xscape will be presented twice, with the “contemporized” versions on one CD and the source material that Michael Jackson left behind on the other. I was really happy to hear that, especially after all the controversy around Michael. In fact, I wish they would release a two-CD version of Michael that included the source material for those songs. I’d love to hear that!
Joie: I’m excited to see what they do with this new release, but thinking about the upcoming album only gives me the urge to go to my playlist of unreleased music. There are so many wonderful songs on there that may or may not ever see a proper release on a real album. But there are also a few that have finally been released, just maybe not here in the US. Or they were released as part of an anthology, like The Ultimate Collection boxed set.
One such song is “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” And I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that one before, but it is a hauntingly beautiful song that I feel Michael really pours his heart out on.
Willa: Oh, I agree. This song feels intensely personal to me. In fact, I feel kind of guilty listening to it – almost like I’m reading his diary or something.
Joie: Yes, it does feel incredibly personal, doesn’t it? Like he’s baring his soul to us. The lyrics are very simple, but so very intimate, and you get the feeling that he really is begging, as he says in the chorus:
Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love
It’s as if he’s reaching out for someone, anyone, to save him. And I always find myself wondering what it is exactly that he’s wanting to be saved or rescued from. As he says in the fourth verse, “Save me now from the path that I’m on.” What does he mean by that? What does he want to be saved from?
Listening to the song in its entirety, you get the feeling that he’s referring to the loneliness. But given the way he died, it makes you wonder if perhaps he was talking about something else. Of course, I’m a firm believer that loneliness was a major factor, or cause, of his other issues.
Willa: You’re right, Joie – he does seem to be asking for someone to both love him and save him from something. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but it does seem to be loneliness plus something more, as you said. He talks about that a bit in the verse that follows the chorus:
I’ve lived my life the lonely
A soul that cries of shame
With handicapped emotions
Save me now from what still remains
You know, it’s not clear who the speaker is in this song. Michael Jackson often adopted a persona in his songs, so he could be speaking in the character of a fictional person. Because this song feels so very personal, it’s tempting to assume it’s Michael Jackson himself, which we probably shouldn’t do. But if he is speaking his own true feelings in this song, then this verse is really troubling to me. Did he honestly believe he had “handicapped emotions”? Did he feel a sense of “shame” because of that – because he thought he couldn’t feel or express emotions the way he should? Is he asking someone to not only love him but teach him how to love?
Joie: Wow, Willa, that’s profound – teach him how to love. That never occurred to me, but you could be right. I believe he probably did feel as though he had “handicapped emotions.”
Willa: Really? Because I’d never considered that before. I mean, there were quite a few people making hurtful comments after the 1993 allegations came out, saying that he was a regressed 12-year-old – meaning they felt he couldn’t really relate to adults because he’d never developed psychologically beyond a 12-year-old level. And I always strongly, strongly disagreed with that. I mean, just look at the psychological complexity of his work, and how emotionally rich it is. That is not the work of a 12 year old. In fact, I would say his work reveals a rare sensitivity and maturity.
So I never accepted the idea that he had “handicapped emotions,” and I would never have dreamed he might feel that way about himself. Though again, he may be speaking in character when he says this, and not speaking as himself.
But you know, it does seem to me that almost everyone he met felt this longing to be validated by him – or more than that, to be fulfilled by him. It’s like they wanted him to fill up any empty places they felt in their lives. Everywhere he went there were all these grasping hands, not just wanting his money but wanting him. And he couldn’t fulfill all their desires – he couldn’t parcel himself out to millions of different people. And I wonder if that’s part of it – if he felt inadequate somehow because he wasn’t able to meet the emotional demands being placed on him by everyone he met.
Joie: Perhaps he felt like he was unable to express a true emotion unless it was written in a song. That’s sort of crazy to think about, isn’t it?
Willa: It is, but it makes sense. In fact, he kind of suggests that in these lyrics:
I’ll be your story hero
A serenading rhyme
I’m just needing that someone
Save me now from the path I’m on
It’s almost like he’s saying that when he engages in romance, he’s just playing a role – a role he’s performed on stage for years: “I’ll be your story hero / A serenading rhyme.” And he’s asking for someone to save him from simply acting that role and allow him to actually feel it.
You know, there’s a kind of distancing that happens when you sublimate your experiences into art. I’ve heard photographers talk about that quite a bit. If you’re a photographer and find yourself plunged in a profound cultural moment, what should you do? Should you distance yourself emotionally, look at it with a photographer’s eye, and document it? Or should you put the camera down and experience it? I can see how Michael Jackson might have encountered that dilemma also, since so much of his work comes from his own experiences – like this song, for example. It feels intensely personal, as you said earlier.
Joie: I think I see what you mean, Willa. You’re wondering if perhaps he ever asked himself that question – should I “document” this deeply personal life experience, or should I just experience and process it and keep it to myself?
Willa: Yes, that’s what I mean.
Joie: That’s an interesting question.
Willa: It is. You know, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, was thrown into the dungeon of Chillon Castle in Switzerland for having an affair with a man from a lower social class than himself – and the class difference was an important part of why he was imprisoned. The lower classes were seen as less sophisticated and more innocent than the upper classes, so having a homosexual relationship with a lower-class man was very disturbing back then – kind of like corrupting a minor is seen today.
Anyway, I’m sure it was pretty uncomfortable being imprisoned in a dungeon, but Byron drew on his experiences for a poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and I get the feeling he thought it was rather romantic for a poet to be imprisoned in a dungeon. Very Gothic. He even carved his name into one of the pillars in the dungeon to memorialize his stay. I visited there one time and saw it. So instead of seeing his imprisonment simply as a hardship, I think he saw it as good background material for his poetry.
So I’ve kind of wandered around a bit, but what I’m trying to say is that using your life experiences as source material for your art can actually change how you relate to those experiences, I think.
Joie: I agree, and I think probably most artists draw on their own personal life experiences more often than we know.
But getting back to the song, you know, not much is known about it in terms of the inspiration for it or the writing of it, except that it was originally written for the Bad album, and then reworked for the Dangerous album. It failed to make it onto either one, but it was eventually released in the UK/Europe in May of 1992 as a Pepsi exclusive cassette single to promote the Dangerous Tour. They were included in a promotional package along with a poster, a giant sticker, and a press file about the tour. It was also released in Japan as a CD single.
Years later it would finally see a proper US release when it was included on The Ultimate Collection boxed set in 2004. And according to Chris Cadman and Craig Halstead’s book, Michael Jackson: For the Record, it was sampled by Ludacris on the track “One More Drink” from his Theater of the Mind album.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I knew it was on the shortlist for Dangerous and then was left off, but didn’t know it was originally written for Bad. So he was still fairly young when he wrote it … I wonder if his feelings changed as he got older?
You know, one thing that strikes me about this song is that the intro is spoken in a deep voice – quiet but deep, much lower than we’re used to hearing his voice – but then the rest is sung in a high voice, what many people would call falsetto. That’s very unusual. Typically, he’ll include high parts as accents, or to evoke a specific emotion at a certain point in the narrative. I’m thinking specifically of that high interlude in “Smooth Criminal” – the “I don’t know … I don’t know … I don’t know why” part that I love so much. But here, the entire song is sung in his higher range. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song where he does that.
I was reading an interesting article not too long ago that might help explain this – why he uses his high voice so extensively here. It’s “The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice: Listening to Sigur Rós” by Edward D. Miller, and he makes a number of intriguing claims. For example, he says “soul/funk singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Curtis Mayfield sang in falsetto and expressed emotions of love, longing, sexual desire, and political discontent.” He goes on to say that male soul and R&B singers, as well “virile” rock singers like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, tend to use falsetto, specifically, when they want to express a sense of “longing” or “a dramatic tenderness” or “moments of great passion.”
If that’s true, it makes sense that in a song where the main character expresses intense “longing” for someone to love, Michael Jackson would sing in falsetto.
Joie: Hmm. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Willa: It is. It also makes me wonder about the contrast between his unusually low spoken voice in the intro and his high singing voice throughout the rest of the song. I wonder if, at some level, it suggests a contrast between his inner life and outer life.
What I mean is that in the intro we hear his everyday world – his spoken life – and he speaks with a normal voice and seems content. (And sounds unbelievably hot, I might add … Yow.) But then we enter his inner world – his singing life – and there’s this high urgent voice expressing unfulfilled desire, a longing to love and be loved. So maybe this contrast between his low spoken voice and his high singing voice represents a disparity between how he feels inside and how he appears to others. As he sings in the opening lines, “I live this life pretending / I can bear this hurt deep inside.”
Joie: That actually makes a lot of sense, Willa. Especially since by many accounts from those closest to him, his natural, everyday speaking voice was at least an octave or two lower than the world seemed to think it was.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, especially since many critics – male critics, especially – mocked him for his public speaking voice. Miller kind of suggests a reason for that also. In his article, he claims there is nothing “false” about the falsetto. He believes the notion that it is not an authentic male voice arises from cultural ideas about gender identity, not anything biological about male vocal cords. As he says in his article,
when the male is using this range, he is confusing gender distinctions. He is entering into tonalities usually designated for women and mimicking a range attributed to women. But the falsettist is not authentically female. It is a form of drag: a vocal masquerade. In this way, the falsetto voice challenges the authenticity of gender-assigned voices. When voices are so strictly assigned to particular bodies, the falsetto becomes transgendered – it moves between binaries of male and female.
I thought this might help explain some of the discomfort male critics, especially, seemed to feel toward Michael Jackson – that it wasn’t just his appearance that crossed boundaries, but his voice as well.
But then Miller undercuts this with a very odd footnote:
One is duty bound from the get-go to acknowledge Michael Jackson. He uses his falsetto range expertly in often a hiccupping fashion, and yes he does appear to be quite bizarre – of course for complicated reasons, mainstream media searches for ways to display his racial/sexual weirdness and to ensure that his status is as monstrous as his role in the video Thriller.
I don’t quite know how to interpret this. It’s Miller’s only footnote, and his only mention of Michael Jackson, and it seems really out of place here – especially in an academic article. It’s almost like Miller is criticizing those who are uncomfortable with falsetto voices, claiming they are falling victim to a cultural bias, but then he adds this footnote that suggests he himself feels a degree of discomfort with Michael Jackson, whom he acknowledges “uses his falsetto range expertly.” I don’t quite know what to make of it, though I think his comment about the media is pretty insightful – especially since this article was published in 2003, before Michael Jackson died and public attitudes about him began to soften and change.
Joie: Well, that is strange. But when reading the first quote here, the only thing that comes to my mind is why is it such a big deal? Why is it odd or “confusing gender distinctions” for a male singer to take full advantage of his entire vocal range? Why does it have to be a case of “entering tonalities usually designated for women”? Especially since so many male singers use the falsetto so often. You would think it would no longer be looked at as “mimicking a range attributed to women,” but simply as part of the natural male vocal range. You know, sometimes I honestly believe that some people think about things too much. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Ha! That’s funny, Joie. You’re right, academics do tend to think about things a lot, and maybe read too much into things sometimes. But except for that unfortunate footnote, I think Miller is really onto something when he talks about the gendering of voices – and he means that in an expansive way, encompassing all the things we’re taught about what it means to be masculine or be feminine. As he says,
In most cultural understandings of the voice, high notes signify passion and evoke drama and excitement for the listener. The falsetto voice does not mimic the female one, but it grants an expressivity to male singers, allowing them to articulate and communicate a frenzy of precise emotions to the auditor. If this is confusing to gender normatives, it is because the male is taught restraint. Thus he must move beyond his “real” voice to his “false” one to express real emotion.
I was really intrigued by this. If I’m interpreting this correctly, that high voice that Michael Jackson uses so beautifully to evoke intense emotions may be seen as feminine not only because it’s so high but precisely because it’s so emotional, and because we as a culture are uncomfortable with emotional men. As Miller says, “the male is taught restraint.”
This puts male singers in a bind since one of the primary goals of singing is to express emotion. But to do that, they have to enter the realm of the feminine – what we falsely call feminine – both vocally and emotionally.
And that reminds me again of the line from “Someone Put Your Hand Out” about “handicapped emotions.” How ironic that Michael Jackson may have felt a sense of “shame” because he thought he wasn’t emotional enough, or fully capable of emotions, when perhaps he was actually perceived – and criticized – for being too emotional. Or that he may have thought he couldn’t express his emotions fully enough, when few people could express their emotions half as well as he did.
Joie: That is interesting. But it’s sort of like when you hear artists – and Michael was one of them – who say that they are extremely introverted, especially in one-on-one situations, and yet they feel perfectly comfortable getting on stage in front of millions. He expressed a wealth of emotions so freely and so well when it was in song or on stage or on a video. But this extremely personal song is telling us that he feels his emotions are “handicapped.” It’s an interesting paradox.
Willa: It is and, Joie, I think you’ve put your finger on something really important. It’s like he says in Moonwalk: “The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one.”
Joie: You know, Willa … you might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to say here, but this song reminds me quite a bit of another deeply personal Michael Jackson song – “Stranger In Moscow.” They have a very similar feel to them, and they evoke a similar emotion in me. I mean, think about the chorus from each song:
Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love
How does it feel (How does it feel)
How does it feel
How does it feel
When you’re alone
And you’re cold inside
To me, both of these songs are about the same thing. They both suggest that he almost felt trapped by this crushing sense of “aloneness,” if that makes any sense. They’re both so forlorn, do you know what I mean?
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s interesting because these songs seem very different to me. Hmmm … I’m going to have to think about that … I see what you mean that they’re both about isolation and loneliness, but why do they feel so different to me?
I wonder if it gets back to that idea of public and private that we were talking about earlier. To me, “Someone Put Your Hand Out” is talking about his private life, and how he would like to have someone share his inner life with him. But to me, “Stranger in Moscow” is about something a little different – about his “swift and sudden fall from grace” and what it feels like to be a social outcast.
But that’s not quite right, because “Stranger in Moscow” then asks us to imagine “how does it feel” to be in that situation, to be a social pariah. As you quoted from the chorus, “How does it feel / When you’re alone / And you’re cold inside?” So he’s merging the public and private and asking us to imagine what his private life was like after his public life fell to ruins. So yeah, Joie, I think I see what you’re saying. That’s really interesting. I don’t think I would have put those two together on my own.
Joie: I don’t know that I ever would have either if I hadn’t been thinking about how the song made me feel, but it’s an interesting comparison, I think. And it brings to mind your earlier question when you said that you wonder if his feelings changed as he got older. I know there were different and pretty serious circumstances going on at the time he wrote “Stranger In Moscow,” but just from the feeling of the two songs I would say the answer to that question was no.
Willa: Well, you’re right, Joie – his circumstances changed a lot. I mean, if he felt isolated in the 1980s when he wrote “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” imagine how he felt in the 1990s after the scandal broke. So I’m sure that in some ways his feelings of loneliness actually intensified.
But you know, in other ways the scandals seemed to make him a lot stronger, even more determined and sure of himself. So I wonder if he would still talk about the “shame” of “handicapped emotions” toward the end of his life? Judging from his work I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say. And it’s hard to know if he was even talking about himself in “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” or speaking in character. And it’s hard to know how much might have been attributable to the specific circumstances he was in.
Joie: That’s very true. But whatever motivated him to write this incredibly beautiful, intensely personal song, I’m grateful that he chose to share it with the world because it’s always been one of my favorites.
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!