Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Covering The King of Pop

A few days ago, I did a post about some of my favorite cover versions of songs of The Beatles. Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson

Personal feelings aside whatever they may be, and I don't disagree he became quite an interesting public spectacle in his final years, Michael Jackson was and is an inspiration to me.

First of all, he stands as the first music artist I discovered on my own. I was about 8 or 9 when I first heard Billie Jean, saw the music video on MTV in fact, and it changed my life. Up to this, my parents had essentially been responsible for my music education: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary among others.
MJ I saw channel-surfing one afternoon, and it was so unlike anything I'd ever seen, I was moved and intrigued.

Second, MJ inspired quite a lot of my early aspirations. He inspired me to dance, he inspired to sing, he essentially inspired me to perform. I saw the attention and the devotion he commanded, and I wanted that.

Finally, I do believe there was a purely good spirit beneath it all. He was a kid who grew up in the spotlight and we all know that is rarely any good for a family, he was the youngest, but clearly a special talent. There was a lot of pressure on him constantly. He never really had a chance to grow up, he never had an authority figure around him to say no, and he was such a genius no one would have been able to rein him in anyway. There is a part of me, and part of that young kid who wanted a performer to look up to, that still believes, wants to believe, has to believe, he was a good guy, a spirit too big for this world, and a tortured genius who only longed for acceptance.

Cover versions of Michael Jackson are decidedly more difficult. This is a testament to the singularity that was Michael Jackson. Like The Beatles before him, it's not outside reason to mark that an entire generation of performers were directly influenced by Michael.
There is a reverence but also an intricacy to his music that makes it difficult to duplicate. On top of that, Michael was the consummate performer. He sang and danced and left his heart on the stage every performance.
That voice is unmatched. He was raw, gritty, poignant, soaring, vulnerable, and invincible. He had a strong falsetto, some soulful lower notes, and great musicality. Find videos of even Bruno Mars, arguably one of the strongest contemporary voices, avoiding singing Billie Jean because he says, "It's too high."
And he danced. It's hard to do a cover of an MJ song if you're going to remove the dance element for one reason or another. There are plenty of people who could dance as well as Michael. He had eight or nine of them on his tours who could keep pace with him every performance. Directors referred to those dancers as extensions of Michael. But you need only watch videos to see the difference, see the distinction of Michael. It's more than an x-factor, it's a certain anger. He dances into the ground, there's a lot of earth-dancing to his movement, much more than his dancers, it's what they miss. They're busy duplicating intricate footwork or the upper body. They miss his anger. MJ danced out a lot of his frustrations that he never really voiced.

I could go on and on with my love of the King, so let me just skip straight to the point. Here are some covers I absolutely love of my favorite songs of the Immortal King of Pop.

Song: Smooth Criminal
From: Bad
Famous for: The Lean in the Moonwalker movie version.
My Thoughts on the Song: It's hard not to love this song. Jackson channels so much Astaire in his demeanor, outfit, and footwork. That driving bass, with the unforgettable hook, the lyrics that no one really understands, and the unforgettable choreography. It stands as probably the most iconic part of the Moonwalker film.
Cover by: Alien Ant Farm
From: Anthology
My Thoughts on the Cover: The cover is actually a pretty faithful arrangement, just grungier, a little metal. It's easier to understand the lyrics in the lower key. The video contains a lot of references to various MJ iconography, including the lean, and the light up sidewalk from the Billie Jean video among others. It strips away a lot of Jackson's theatrics, tastefully, to make the song a pretty cool rock anthem.

The Song: Beat It
From: Thriller
Famous For: That jacket, first of all. The Eddie Van Halen guitar track, second of all. And the West Side Story-inspired choreography, third of all. It all makes for quite an unforgettable track, which is hard to do considering it came from Thriller, famous for its title track, Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', and P.Y.T.
My Thoughts on the Song: The video is pretty unforgettable, but it's honestly one of my least favorite tracks from MJ. I never liked the concert versions of it, and it just doesn't build like some of his later, more mature tracks.
Cover By: Fall Out Boy
From: Single by the band
My Thoughts on the Cover: I actually rather prefer this cover to the original, sacrilegious as that may be. I think Fall Out Boy adds a great touch to it that makes it their own, and kind of cleans up the song for me in a way that improves it. John Mayer performs the Van Halen solo. Excellence.

The Song: The Way You Make Me Feel
From: Bad
Famous For: I think it's one of the most iconic dance sequences of any music video, it's one of the famous MJ girls, and the video's a liiiiittle bit stalker-y, but so much fun I guess, that it's forgivable.
My Thoughts on the Song: My favorite track from Bad, and probably my favorite track of Michael's ever. It's just a glorious sound he produces on it, and the arrangement really is so much fun. MJ didn't do a lot of up-tempo "love" songs later on, and this one stands as one of the few memorable.
Cover By: Stevie Wonder, joined by John Legend
From: Live performance from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert.
My Thoughts on the Cover: Even Wonder, with that stellar voice, struggles a bit to nail these high notes that came so easy to the soaring voice of MJ. However, I like the funky synth arrangement, joined by some capable backup singers as well as Legend on piano. In the second verse, about a minute and a half in, something extremely special happens. It's a vulnerable moment, where Wonder ceases to be a performer, and becomes simply a man who misses his friend. The consummate professional, he comes back and nails the song. It's that moment though, that makes the song for me.

The Song: Black or White
From: Dangerous
Famous For: The music video stars George Wendt and Macauley Culkin in the opening. Jackson dances with a multi-ethnic cast. The main part of the song ends with a face-morphing shot that incorporated new technology for the time. The coda to the video is Jackson morphing from a jaguar to dance in the street by himself, on top of a car, most memorably.
My Thoughts on the Song: Definitely one of my favorite hooks, and of course Jackson's choreography is just a lot of fun. The rap segment is appropriately cheesy for the time that it came out of, and the lyrics occasionally make close to no sense, but Jackson's essential message of us all being human shines through, and its enthusiasm and joy that carries this track.
Cover By: Adam Lambert
From: His first live performance for American Idol.
My Thoughts on the Cover: There really is no reason to watch American Idol beyond the 5th season. The surprises are gone, the interesting talent is gone, and the novelty of the show is long gone. One bright spot post-5th though, is this young man from San Diego. He has a powerhouse voice that very nearly won him the competition, and he should have, because musically, he was superior and far more entertaining than the eventual winner of that season. He also took more risks. Black or White is not a major risk by any means, but it's a difficult song to cut 1:30 out of (about the average length of an American Idol live performance), and it's Jackson. Like Whitney, Stevie, and Mariah, the judges worn contestants over and over that if you're going to cover something by these four, you better bring it. Unlucky for most of the contestants, it was Michael Jackson week, but Adam shined through. The effortless range on the boy's voice is something to behold. The performance starts about a minute in:

The Song: Remember the Time
From: Dangerous
Famous For: The music video stars Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson. It also contains one of the longest Jackson dance sequences, shot perfectly I might add, next to the iconic Thriller sequence. On top of that, it contains pretty much every Jackson motif: Jackson's character is magical, the Jackson girl, cats, a chase sequence, and comedy.
My Thoughts on the Song: A favorite for sure, it's a subtly refreshing track, and actually pretty different from the rest of the album, which is much more typical of late-era Jackson.
Cover by: YouTube star, acapella group with the handle: duwendemusic
From: The internets.
My Thoughts on the Cover: Jackson seems to be a favorite of theirs to cover, and this one is my favorite. The beatbox and the bass voice are phenomenal, and the three backup voices are excellent. The main guy's got a pretty typical R&B smoothness, which is fine for the track. Not sure if the style would work for any other Jackson song, but it works for this one.

And finally...
The Song: Human Nature
From: Thriller
Famous For: It's a recognizable track when you hear it, but I'm surprised few people realize it's Jackson when I first tell them.
My Thoughts on the Song: It's my favorite Jackson ballad: the love, the quiet sigh in his voice, the ethereal backing. It's one of my favorite sequences in the This Is It movie. Jackson know how to play a hold.
Cover By: John Mayer
From: The Jackson funeral.
My Thoughts on the Cover: Mayer strips down Human Nature to its wonderful melody. The performance is a loving tribute to a great artist. I'll let the video speak for itself.

And finally, I think it only fitting to end with the master himself. There's so many, many videos I could put here, but this one is among the best. First of all, it's two of Jackson's most memorable songs, and second it's at the Grammy's. This is a 10-minute sequence. It's probably the greatest 10 minutes the Grammy's has ever seen. If they had truly great performances on the telecast like this still, we'd all still be watching it. Watch the moves, listen to that voice, particularly the improvs for Man in the Mirror. Hear the appreciation. There's still no equal.