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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!