Michael turned the adlib into an art form all of its own. He possessed a unique ability to perfectly punctuate epic crescendos with iconic outbursts of phrasing. With the unbridled passion which Michael emoted these adlibs often revealing more about the truth of the particular piece than the main body of lyrics.
However, the pedantry involved as Michael crafted his songs makes the term ‘adlib’ a difficult one to confidently appropriate in the context of his work. Of course, the man in the recording studio vocalising spontaneous streams of consciousness was adlibbing. But why in the editing suite did Michael ultimately opt to include one particular involuntary outburst over another?
Potentially controversial adlibs were often barely coherent. This ambiguity afforded Michael a degree of artistic liberty he would have otherwise had to suppress. The technique enabled Michael to walk the line between mass appeal and honest art – such was the tense dichotomy between his need for quantitative success in order to feel wanted, and his craving to divulge truth. This approach also had the benefit of leaving his art open to interpretation, as well as helping maintain his enigmatic image and satisfying his penchant for the cryptic. (Nothing epitomises this more than the Dangerous album cover.) The tactic became increasingly necessary as a consequence of legal restraints that bound Michael following the Chandler settlement. Good examples of such adlibs can be found in the tracks Monkey Business, Money and They Don’t Care About Us.
For D.S. – on the other hand – Michael threw such safeguards to the wind and sang explicitly about the subject matter. Then avoided legal action simply by publishing the song accompanied with incorrect lyrics.
Michael’s adlibs were uniquely raw, soulful expressions that were specifically and intentionally included for a purpose; as with all of Michael’s art, there was always a reason for position.
Bearing this obsessive pedantry in mind, it’s interesting to note the “see” adlib that Michael used on the Invincible album. The word “see” occurs in twelve of the sixteen tracks. It’s a common verb, admittedly – but one Michael deliberately added to songs that otherwise didn’t contain it. On Invincible, Michael incorporates Notorious B.I.G’s rap from You Can’t Stop The Reign, which includes the line “Put that on my diamond bezel, you’re messing with the devil”. Michael would famously go on to label Tommy Motolla as the devil during the ensuing campaign. The album also contains arguably the most beautiful adlib Michael ever performed, when evoking the image of a butterfly with his fluttering falsetto.
I remember the first time I heard Scream and recognised the adlib “Blame it on yourself!” from Blame It On The Boogie. I also remember thinking how thematically disparate the tracks were – one a carefree proclamation of joy, the other an anguished riposte. Both uttered from the same soul under circumstances worlds apart.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Michael’s vocal improvisations reside in Who Is It. The pain of loneliness and the imploring for understanding are tangible. The track drips with lament. The same applies to those in We’ve Had Enough and Don’t Walk Away.
Michael’s adlibs were regularly the saving grace of any relatively supbar output – recordings he usually agreed to be involved with as part of deals or favours. His featuring on Eddie Murphy’s track Whatzupwitu in return for the actor’s appearance in the Remember The Time video being an example that springs to mind.
The importance Michael put on the power of adlibs can be seen in the making-of footage of What More Can I Give, where as producer, he is seen demonstrating how to emote effectively with the exclamation “Wasting! Wasting my time – no!” then instructing how “On the adlibs I just want you to soar.” However, it seems the performance requested didn’t quite reach Michael’s standards, as that particular adlib ended up being sung by himself on the final edit.
On demo recordings, we can hear how Michael experimented with different vocalisations. Whilst these aren’t strictly adlibs, they are invaluable in illustrating Michael’s creative process. How he often had ideas for instrumentation and sounds that he wanted to include in a piece, but was trying to find the right moment for them. Instances of this can be heard in the outro to Don’t Be Messin’, which features a lick first heard in State Of Shock, as well as in the demo of We Are The World with the “Sha-la-lingy” refrain that was ultimately omitted. In the same vein, it’s also necessary to differentiate between true adlibs and the watermark “hee hees” and “hoos” that Michael employed in his songs. Although, naturally, these were still placed with the same precision so as to generate maximum musical impact.
Perhaps the potency inherent in a well-positioned, well-expressed adlib became apparent to Michael during that fabled instance whilst recording I’ll Be There with the Jackson 5. Michael spontaneously sang the words “Just look over your shoulders honey!” to the annoyance of his brother Jermaine, who pointed out the error – that it is impossible to look over both shoulders simultaneously. Berry Gordy, however, was delighted – pointing out that it is such imperfections that make something genuine. At the very least, Gordy’s support in the matter must have surely bolstered Michael’s confidence – particularly as the adlib made the finished cut.
Michael perfected the art of adlibbing during his time in The Jacksons, with the tracks Style of Life, All Night Dancin’, Strength Of One Man, Things I Do For You, Walk Right Now, Lovely One, Blues Away and Wait all featuring fine examples. The latter two containing personal favourites.
And let us not overlook Michael’s adlibs during live performances. On the Victory Tour especially, when Michael was still more inclined to improvise – with Working Day and Night in the Kansas show containing a prime exhibit. Another adlibbed performance I’m especially fond of is at the denouement of Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’ from the same concert, when Michael appears to be doing no less than goading his duet partner with the words “I’m not dreaming brother!”
Maybe in retaliation for the I’ll Be There incident.
It is the Bad era, however, that I contend includes the finest display of live adlibbing Michael ever expressed. Michael’s vocalisations during the finale of Man In The Mirror at the 1988 Grammy Awards elevate the performance from a mere show to a spiritual experience. Michael transformed into a Preacher.
But with each successive tour, Michael’s inclination to improvise – at least, vocally – progressively dwindled.
Spontaneity became more and more of a rarity, with Michael’s professionalism manifesting as reluctance to leave any room for error. The logic behind this ethos becomes apparent with a simple consideration of the extent of Michael’s work ethic. He embarked on world tour after world tour, breaking records for length of time spent on the road and audience attendance figures. James Brown was known as ‘The Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness’ but Michael must surely give him a run for his money in earning this accolade.
This work ethic was also evident during Michael’s long stints in the recording studio, with his predilection for absolute perfection being notoriously difficult to satisfy. Michael appreciated this about himself, admitting that if it were left up to him, nothing would ever get released due to his self-effacing dissatisfaction with it.
Bearing these factors in mind – the level of effort Michael expended when creating his art, and the pathological extent of his perfectionism – it’s easy to see how Michael was tempted to start lip-synching performances when the opportunity arose. This idea is supported by the fact that on the Victory Tour, in spite of the song Thriller being fresh as well as the most famous piece of music on the planet, Michael’s frustration with the contemporaneous quality of live sound production meant the track wasn’t included on the set list. The technology simply wasn’t advanced enough to do the song justice live on stage.
The same reason applies to why – after initially being mooted to feature – neither In The Closet nor Remember The Time were performed on the Dangerous Tour. Although Michael had to some degree embraced lip-synching by this point, miming these two songs in addition to the other Dangerous album tracks that featured in the concerts – all of which were usually lip-synched – might have been construed as taking things too far.
One song – almost uniquely – that Michael consistently performed live throughout his career was Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, and it’s interesting to note how when asked which song he was least happy with in terms of it being the finished article, he cited this one. Michael’s desperation to replicate live the sound he had worked so hard to achieve in the studio is also evident when seeing him instruct the band during rehearsals for This Is It.
By the time the HIStory Tour arrived, Michael seemingly felt the stigma associated with lip-synching had subsided enough for him to utilise the medium for the majority of the set list. It’s no secret that Michael signing up for the HIStory Tour was done under duress and purely as a consequence of the 1993 allegations. Michael needed to respond proactively and remind the world of his status as the master of stage showmanship. The prevalence of lip-synching on the tour can no doubt be partly put down to this. However, Michael had now been indefatigably entertaining and touring the world for three decades. He suffered with breathing problems. His need to get back on the road and fly his flag conflicted with his physical capability to do so. And the perfectionist in him would never allow a run of shows in which things might often be less than immaculate.
As well, lip-synching freed up Michael to focus more on his dancing. Indeed, ironically enough, the HIStory Tour contained the most on-stage spontaneity we had seen since the Victory Tour, with Michael more inclined to stray from a song’s recognised choreography as well as incorporating a great deal more audience interaction than we had ever previously seen. Audience interaction was something Michael once asked Bruce Springsteen for advice about – divulging to Springsteen that the rock star’s ability to converse naturally with his audience was something he envied, as he himself was too shy to do so. The HIStory tour was the closest Michael came to achieving this – even if the conversation was a rehearsed part of the show (there was never any bug on the dance floor).
Michael’s sense of perfectionism in the production of his art ensured its longevity to legend – with the sacrificing of spontaneity being a relatively trivial price to pay for this. Besides, it makes any instances of involuntary expression all the more valuable to us fans. Ultimately, it is irrelevant whether or when Michael was miming or not. That wasn’t the point. For better or worse, these days, live vocals are increasingly scarce in any pop act anyway.
When Paul McCartney told Michael of his reservations about the lyrics for The Girl Is Mine, Michael dismissed them, explaining how he was far more interested in successfully conveying the feel of the piece (albeit, the way this “feel” was communicated had to be done to perfection). Similarly, when performing, Michael was more concerned about the audience’s experience and reaction. Had he managed to blow their minds? Had he lit that spark in a soul? Had he advanced his mission?
Michael’s pedantry concerning his art is what makes the Cascio deception so viscerally repulsive. The original version of Keep Your Head Up even sampled lines from Earth Song for use as ‘adlibs’. The very notion of even attempting such corruption is sacrilegious and betrays Michael’s memory – not solely because of the inherent malevolence involved in prostituting Michael’s voice, but because it exemplifies how little those at the helm of his Estate understand the man they once tricked into believing was their friend.
Italian translation available here: http://amzn.to/1O85aRV