Battle Young Michael Jackson vs Old Michael Jackson

I think the first thing I think about when I compare the two voices of Michael, is the ornamentation. First of all, ornamentation to me it’s like adding sprinkles, whipped cream and a cherry on top of a hot coffee. I mean, I understand why people use so much ornamentation in their voices, first of all there is the technical sophistication which some of the ornamentation requires, and you’ll hear all kinds of this in every vocal contest, especially at American Idol. Or maybe the singer is worried that the voice along isn’t enough for the song, that is needs more umph, more feeling, so the ornamentation goes on. There are a lot of reasons for this ornamentation.

But to me, the greatest voices are those that are so confident and so sure that the melody is beautiful that no artifice is required.

I think a great example is Karen Carpenter.

On the other side of the spectrum is the great James Brown.

But if you listen closely you’ll notice something. When James Brown goes “HUH” or “Can we take it to the bridge”, or “YEAAAH”, it’s not just ornamentation, it is so deep in the grove, and so organic, it is not an accessory, it is part of the song.

Now if you listen to Michael Jackson on Billie Jean you can hear a few characteristic ornamentations Michael uses. He’s got this vocal hiccup, the quick breath, right before the note and a semi soft James Brown “huh”, high e’s, f’s and g’s.

Now I’m not a  big fan of David Cook’s treatment of Billie Jean, but what you can notice is just how much more expressive you can make that song if all you do is take out some of the vocal hiccups.  By staying closer to the melody, suddenly the lyrics seem more important.

James Brown has less vocal ornamentation than Michael Jackson. Now it’s not that I’m against vocal ornamentation, I like it. But it is a constant battle for every accomplished singer to be able to hold himself back, and just sing the melody, and when ornamentation is added to make sure it is organic to the song.

Michael never needed to do this to his voice, he wrote great songs, sang them with great expression, so all the vocal ornamentation, he didn’t have to do it, no more than he had to grab his crotch while singing.

Of course this style made him instantly recognizable, but I think it made him a worse singer than when he was back in the Jackson 5 days.

Winner : Young Michael Jackson