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Monster, He’s a Monster

Willa: So Joie, we’ve been talking recently about a couple of songs from Xscape, and it’s true there are some really great demos on that album. But to be honest, my favorite song that’s come out since Michael Jackson died is “Monster.” I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the so-called “Cascio tracks,” with some fans – including people I really respect – questioning the legitimacy of those tracks. Specifically, they question whether that’s really his voice we hear singing these songs.

Joie:  Yes, we’ve all heard a lot about the controversy, Willa. And you know, I’m really not sure that it’s ever going to end. I mean, there’s no way to truly convince those who doubt that it’s Michael’s voice on those tracks that it actually is him. So, I personally don’t think that issue will ever be resolved.

Willa:  You could be right, Joie, though I have a feeling that, over time, opinion will start to coalesce toward one side or the other. So what do you think? Do you think it’s his voice?

Joie:  Honestly, Willa … I really don’t know. And I have to say that it really troubles me to have to admit that, but it’s the truth. The fact is, on each of the songs in question – “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Monster” – there are parts that sound unquestioningly like Michael to me. But by that same token, on each song, there are many parts that just don’t sound quite … right. Do you know what I mean? On certain parts something is just missing from this amazing, unique voice that many of us have been listening to unceasingly for over forty years.

But here’s the thing that makes me doubt these songs:  it’s not just the Cascio tracks on the Michael album, it’s all the Cascio tracks. At least all the ones that I’ve heard. Supposedly, there are 12 in all, and I have 4 in my collection of unreleased music. That’s 4 other Cascio tracks besides the 3 that appeared on the Michael album, and they all have these little hiccups that Teddy Riley and others who worked on that album tried to explain away as “overprocessing” during the final producing stages to “fix” tiny imperfections like the occasional flat note or such. Now, if these little hiccups are in the 4 tracks that didn’t get that final “overprocessing” treatment in order to make it onto the album, why do they still sound like the 3 tracks that did get the “overprocessing” treatment? That’s my question.

Willa: And it’s a really good question.

Joie: But, you know, I’m not an expert. Far from it! So, it could very well be that it is in fact Michael’s voice on each and every Cascio track, and there’s a very simple explanation as to why they all sound not quite right. As I understand it, the studio they were working in was a very rudimentary homemade sort of deal, so perhaps that did play a big part in the resulting sound quality of each track.

The problem is, without Michael here to verify that, we have no way of knowing, and probably never will. If they had video recorded the entire process, I think the Michael album would have been received by the fans in a completely different light, but instead I think many of them just felt sort of alienated somehow. Like the Estate and those working on the album were trying to deceive them in some way, or trying to take advantage of their grief.

Willa: Well, it is a shock when you go to listen to a Michael Jackson song expecting to hear his voice – a voice many of us have been listening to for forty years, as you said – and hear something that just doesn’t sound right. I feel the same way about “Best of Joy,” and the legitimacy of that song is apparently beyond doubt – at least, I’ve never heard anyone question it. And actually, I do think it’s his voice. It’s just been overprocessed to the point where it sounds really off to me.

But I don’t think the Estate was intentionally trying to deceive anyone, and I think they did honestly try to find out whether those tracks were legitimate. Howard Weitzman, a lawyer for the Estate, issued a detailed letter after the controversy broke where he explained the process they used to verify the authenticity of the Cascio tracks. He said they began by asking the opinion of professionals intimately familiar with his voice:

Six of Michael’s former producers and engineers who had worked with Michael over the past 30 years – Bruce Swedien, Matt Forger, Stewart Brawley, Michael Prince, Dr. Freeze and Teddy Riley – were all invited to a listening session to hear the raw vocals of the tracks in question. All of these people listened to the a cappella versions of the vocals on the tracks being considered for inclusion on the album, so they could give an opinion as to whether or not the lead vocals were sung by Michael. They all confirmed that the vocal was definitely Michael.

Michael’s musical director and piano player on many of his records over a 20-year period, Greg Phillinganes, played on a Cascio track being produced for the album, and said the voice was definitely Michael’s. Dorian Holley, who was Michael’s vocal director for his solo tours for 20 plus years (including the O2 Concert Tour) and is seen in the This Is It film, listened to the Cascio tracks and told me the lead vocal was Michael Jackson.

Weitzman’s letter goes on to say that after receiving the panel’s opinion, the Estate gave the tracks to “one of the best-known forensic musicologists in the nation.” He conducted a waveform analysis and concluded that the vocals were Michael Jackson’s. Sony then brought in a second musicologist who conducted another, independent investigation, and he or she came to the same conclusion.

To me, that’s all pretty compelling evidence. I mean, I have a lot of faith in Bruce Swedien’s ears – more than my own, actually! And to me personally, the Cascio tracks sound like Michael Jackson’s voice, though a bit processed – but not nearly as much as on “Best of Joy.” To be honest, I have much more of a problem with it than the Cascio tracks.

Joie: And I still don’t understand your aversion to that song, Willa, because there is no comparison between the vocals on “Best of Joy” and the vocals on the Cascio tracks. They are like night and day. The vocals on “Best of Joy” didn’t get that overprocessed treatment that the Cascio songs were supposedly subjected to, and they have never been in question. In fact, we know that “Best of Joy” was the last song that Michael worked on before he died.

But there is no documentation that proves Michael ever worked on the Cascio tracks, which is why all that analysis was supposedly ordered by the Estate. All we have to go on are the words of the Cascios themselves, and of course, all of the expert voice analysis that you just listed. But my response to that is, have you ever listened to songs by MJ sound-alikes, like Jason Malachi or Marcus J. Williams? Ok, I know a lot was said about Malachi when the album came out, and he vehemently denied having had anything to do with the album, but have you ever heard Williams? Here’s a sample:

All I’m saying is that the Estate and Sony can tell us that they brought in all of these experts to verify that the vocals are genuine, and maybe they did, and maybe they are. But how do we really know? I guess it just all boils down to whether or not you choose to believe it. And let me just point out that I’m not saying that I don’t believe it’s Michael on the Cascio tracks. I’m just saying that I can see both sides of the argument, and those tracks (both the ones on the album, and the ones still unreleased) sound questionable to me.

But I want to back up a little bit and address something else you just said. “Monster” is your favorite posthumously released song? That surprises me for some reason.

Willa:  Well, as we’ve talked about in many posts before, I love the way Michael Jackson encourages us to sympathize with the Other – with those who are considered outsiders and are typically ignored by popular culture or presented in unflattering or oppressive ways. We see that in some of his best songs and films: Thriller, Ghosts, Beat It, Black or White, Stranger in Moscow, “We are the World” and “Heal the World” … on and on. All the way back to “Ben,” his very first number one hit when he was just a kid. He didn’t write “Ben,” but he loved it and sang it in concerts for years, well into adulthood.

Also, frequently in his songwriting we see him adopting multiple subject positions and viewing a situation from multiple perspectives, often in a way that gradually shifts the meaning of the lyrics over the course of the song. We’ve talked about this in a lot of posts also, like when we talked about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” the Who Is It video – even that song I have so much trouble listening to, “Best of Joy.” While his voice sounds off to me – distressingly off – I love the lyrics.

Joie:  How can that beautiful falsetto on the chorus and the smooth tenor of the verses sound off to you? They are as magical on “Best of Joy” as they are on “Don’t Stop,” “Childhood,” or “Butterflies.” You know, every time you talk about it, I wonder if maybe you bought a bad CD or got a faulty mp3 download or something, because there is nothing off about that song! It’s all in your head! Or should I say your ears.

Willa: Oh heavens, Joie – talk about a controversy that will not end! How long have we been debating this? Pretty much since the Michael album came out, right? I really think we have argued about this more than anything else. You know, when we talked about “Best of Joy” in a post a while back, I was very careful not to say anything about it – about how completely off his voice sounds to me.

Joie: And I wish you had because I wanted to talk about it back then, but you asked me not to mention it, remember?

Willa: Yes, I know. It just embarrassed me that there was a song out there where I love everything about it except his vocals, especially since no one else seemed to have a problem with it. I mean, I have loved his voice since I was 9 years old. It was very confusing to me – how could his voice sound so wrong? So I didn’t say a word about it in the post, but then two people – Juney07 and Eleanor – mentioned it in their comments. As Juney wrote,

My “problem” with Best of Joy is that for some technical reason Michael’s voice sounds higher pitched on the CD I have, perhaps overproduced, or something. I’m no expert on CD production but wonder if any of you guys think the same. I know it’s Michael’s voice; that’s not the issue; if it had been released while he was living I would have wondered the same.

And then Eleanor wrote this:

I have had a similar problem with “Best of Joy,” and have hesitated to join this discussion because of it. It is the only track that bothers me on “Michael.”

I feel the exact same way as Juney and Eleanor. (And thank you both very much, because I was starting to wonder if I was crazy! Seriously. I even went to a hearing specialist to see if there was something wrong. So thank you for reassuring me that I’m not the only person on the planet who hears it this way …) Some parts are better than others, but the opening line, for example, sounds sped up to me, almost like an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of a Michael Jackson song. It makes it very hard to listen to, which is too bad because I love the lyrics and the melody.

Joie:  You’ve said that before, about the opening line of that song sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks to you. This is why I always wonder if maybe there is a bad batch of CDs out there or something. I don’t know if I’m using the correct musical terminology here or not, but to me, the cadence of that opening line – the modulation and inflection of his voice in those first four notes of the song – sound every bit as strong and clear to me as the first four notes of “Speechless.” He is singing in a slightly higher key in “Best of Joy,” but his voice sounds exactly the same in the opening lines of both songs. And I always wonder how we can hear this song so differently. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like we truly are not listening to the same piece of music, and I find it both fascinating and frustrating. I mean, we’ve disagreed over songs before, but on things like our interpretations of them or simply what our favorites and least favorites are, but this is different. With “Best of Joy” we literally are not hearing the same piece of music. Don’t you find that odd?

Willa:  I do. I find it incredibly odd. But you gave me an mp3, remember? Just to see if I had a bad CD? And it sounded fine to you and wrong to me. So we’re listening to the same file – we just hear it differently somehow.

I’ve even wondered if there’s like an auditory version of colorblindness – if maybe I’m not hearing the full range of sound somehow, so certain sections sound thin and reedy to me. I mean some sections sound beautiful, like “I was the only one around” at 0:22, but then “When things would hurt you” comes in at 0:27 and that sounds wrong to me, like it’s been sped up or something.

Joie: I had forgotten that I sent you an mp3 because of this debate, but you’re right – I remember that now. And I’m sorry. I don’t mean for “Best of Joy” to hijack this post – I’m not even sure how we got started – but you mentioned an auditory version of colorblindness, which I find both interesting and amusing. But I’m wondering if perhaps it could be whatever device you’re listening on. I also wonder what the ratio is of fans who hear it fine to fans who hear it distorted, because obviously you’re not the only one – Juney and Eleanor prove that. So, there must be others. It’s just an interesting little mystery to me.

Willa: It really is, for me too. And “distorted” is a good way to describe it, because that’s how it sounds to me.

But anyway, we were talking about “Monster” and how, in his songwriting, Michael Jackson structures the lyrics sometimes so there’s a constantly shifting point of view. This is very unusual, maybe because it’s so difficult to do. Yet Michael Jackson seems to achieve it effortlessly – it just seems to be a natural reflection of how his mind worked. We see him using this approach over and over throughout his career, from his earliest songs to his latest. To me, this feature of his songwriting is as distinctive as a fingerprint, and in that sense I see his fingerprints all over the Cascio tracks, especially “Monster.”

So whether that’s his voice singing the lyrics of “Monster” or not (and I think it is) I am absolutely convinced he wrote those lyrics, both by the subject matter – meaning the way he encourages us to sympathize with the Other – and by the complex way the lyrics are structured – meaning the way he constantly shifts point of view over the course of the song.

Joie: I don’t believe the authorship of the songs has ever been in question, only the vocals. But, did you want to talk about the song “Monster,” or only the controversy surrounding it and the other Cascio tracks?

Willa: No, I’d love to focus on “Monster” because I think it’s a great song – and an important one – that hasn’t been explored the way it deserves because of the uncertainty surrounding it. I just thought we should “dance with the elephant” a bit and address the controversy upfront because I know it’s an issue for a lot of people.

So “Monster” begins with these lines:

You can look at them coming out the walls
You can look at them climbing out the bushes
You can find them when the letter’s about to fall
He’ll be waiting with his camera right on focus
Everywhere you seem to turn, there’s a monster
When you look up in the air, there’s a monster
Paparazzi got you scared like a monster, monster, monster

So the first verse is written in second person (“You can look at them …”) which is unusual. Generally songs are written in first person (I can look at them …) or third person (He, she, or they can look at them …). What second-person narration does is put us as listeners into the song. And how we’re positioned is interesting – we are in the role of a celebrity targeted by paparazzi. They’re surrounding us and coming at us from every direction, so we can’t get away from them. They keep suddenly appearing, like the zombies in Thriller – in fact, he calls them “monsters,” so they kind of are like something out of Thriller. It’s like we’re living in a real life horror movie, being confronted by these “monsters” all around us that are impossible to escape.

Then a two-part chorus comes in, and the first part shifts this completely:

Oh oh Hollywood
It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
Oh oh Hollywood
Just look in the mirror
And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?

It’s still written in second person (“It’s got you jumping like you should”) but we’re no longer a celebrity – a target of tabloid paparazzi. Instead, we’re a consumer of those exploitative tabloid pictures and screaming headlines. And he says that if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we like those trashy tabloids, as much as we may pretend not to: “Just look in the mirror / And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?” In fact, we like it so much we’re addicted to it, intoxicated by it. As he says, “It’s got you bouncing off the wall / It’s got you drunk enough to fall.”

And then the second part of the chorus comes in and shifts the perspective once again:

He’s a monster
He’s an animal

He’s a monster
He’s an animal

This is sung by multiple voices, not just his voice though his voice is among them, and it seems to represent what the tabloids are saying about him. So this part is from the tabloids’ point of view, and they’re saying, “He’s a monster.” That’s a complete reversal from the first verse, where he was saying the paparazzi were acting like monsters.

So in quick succession we’ve looked at this situation from the perspective of a celebrity who’s hounded by the tabloids, a consumer who buys and reads the tabloids, and the tabloids themselves. And, as if that isn’t complicated enough, he then takes us around that full circuit of perspectives two more times. Wow!

Joie:  Wow, indeed, Willa! That was a really interesting interpretation. And I agreed with most of what you said. I do believe that he has positioned us, the audience, as the celebrity in this song. And I agree that the first part of the two-part chorus shifts this and makes us the tabloid-addicted public. But I disagree completely with the last part of your interpretation. For me, the second half of that two-part chorus puts us back in the celebrity’s point of view, not the tabloids’. Especially when we look at the second voice that comes in between the lines of that part of the chorus:

(he’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(just like an animal)
He’s an animal
(and he’s moving in the air)

He’s a monster
He’s an animal
(everybody wanna be a star)

So here we see that second voice, weaving in and out of the second part of the chorus, “He’s like an animal / just like an animal / and he’s moving in the air.” So, I think that second voice is still referring to the paparazzi as the monster, not the celebrity. And this seems to be supported the further we get into the song when that portion of the two-part chorus begins to repeat:

(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you stalking me?)
He’s an animal
(why did you do it? why did you? why are you stalking me?)

(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s an animal
(Why did you? why did you?)

Here that second voice that weaves in and out of the chorus seems to turn on the paparazzi and confront them. “Why are you haunting me? / Why are stalking me? / Why did you do it?”

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I agree those lines do seem to be a celebrity talking to the paparazzi and asking them why they’re doing what they’re doing – as he says in one round of the chorus, “What did you do to me? Why’d you take it? Why’d you fake it?”  The question “Why’d you take it?” sounds like something a celebrity would say to a photographer.

But to me, this section where the second voice weaves in and out of the chorus – the voice you put in parentheses – is really interesting because I see this section as presenting two conflicting voices. The foreground voices (or what were the foreground before – now they’ve been pushed back and sound more like they’re in the background) anyway, the voices singing, “Monster / He’s a monster / He’s an animal,” that still represents the tabloids, I think, like earlier in the song.

But now we hear that new voice you were talking about, Joie, and it’s pushing back against that narrative and implying they’re the real monsters … and as you said, it seems to be the voice of a celebrity under attack by the tabloids: “Why you stalking me? … Why you haunting me?” At least, that’s how I interpret it. It’s kind of like we talked about in the “Chicago” post a couple weeks ago, where the foreground voice and the background voice are in conflict and expressing different emotions. To me, the foreground voice and background voice are in conflict here too, and not just expressing different emotions but the opposing viewpoints of two very different groups of people: the celebrities, and the tabloids that feed off them.

Then this section is followed by a heartbreaking bridge:

Why are they never satisfied with all you give?
You give them your all
They’re watching you fall
And they eat your soul like a vegetable

The way I interpret this, the “you” in this case is the performer who gives his all on stage – so we’re positioned as a celebrity again – and the “they” are the people who read the tabloids. They’re the audience who loves you when you’re on stage but is “never satisfied” with that, and wants to read hurtful, gossipy stories about your private life as well.

At least, that’s how I see it. How do you see this part?

Joie:  Well, I don’t think the “they” is only the people who read the tabloids. I think it also refers to all of us as well, the fans. I mean, he loved his fans very much, but I believe he probably sometimes felt that we wanted much more of him than he could physically give – not necessarily wanting to read hurtful, gossipy stories about him, but definitely wanting to peek inside his private life and see everything.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie. I think you’re probably right about that – “they” probably does include all of us to some degree. After all, it wasn’t just tabloid readers who were curious about his life, but all of us.

Joie: And you might be right about the dueling voices on the last part, but as the song comes to an end I think we’re back in that second-person point of view as he addresses us, the audience, and puts us back in the celebrity’s position and says:

He’s dragging you down like a monster
He’s keeping you down like a monster

Willa: That’s interesting, because I always thought he was putting us in the consumer position in this part – that he was saying that reading tabloids and watching Hard Copy drags us all down, as a culture. But you’re right, the tabloids certainly “drag down” celebrities also, so it makes a lot of sense that way too.

However you interpret it, it’s a fascinating song by a masterful songwriter who always encouraged and sometimes forced us to view the world from a multitude of perspectives, including some we may never have considered before. That’s one reason – one of many – why his work captures my imagination and won’t let me go.