I consider Prince, Bjork and Michael Jackson to be excellent examples of artists that are not afraid to experiment and therefore evolve their music. These were and are artists who have never been trying to appease the corporate side of the music biz by any means and here, Michael Jackson will serve as an example of how from one album to the next, it is possible to develop and evolve without completely compromising your artistic integrity and the expectations of your audience. But before we go there, first we must examine the barriers to musical evolution.
As a musician, the 'M' word may not be your first consideration, but beyond your actual love of making music, money is the industry's true muse. If you want to survive off your music, the forced temptation to reproduce something that you have already been given the thumbs up for, will be heavily suggested. The thing is, you can never tell what an audience wants in the moment, staying the same may bore your audience, a radical departure from your last sound may alienate them and devolving your efforts might seriously backfire. MJ always went forward.
THE ONE TRICK PONY
Some artists/producers don't actually have anything else in their repertoire other than what they gave you the first time around. I always encourage people to listen to all types of music, as each genre contains lessons in artistry and he(art). Perhaps Gabba Techno might be stretching that sentiment, but surely you can find one song to like or learn from in most genres of music? The soundscapes of the world will afford you to make new music forever. Michael used various producers for various sounds and managed to include Swahili vocals, Brazilian drums, gospel and operatic choirs into his pop music.
RECORD LABEL INTERFERENCE
Artists aren't always the cause of an artists arrested development. In the eyes of the record label, the final, submitted songs for the album that you poured your blood, sweat and tears into, maybe rejected. Cited and cliche reasons for song rejections, from the A&R person's handbook include: "It's too ahead of its time". Or "It's too avant-garde". Or some are more honest and will just say "It's just bat s**t crazy!" Whatever the reason is, the label is often all powerful and depending on the type of contract you have signed, you might not even have the rights to your own material. Michael had to fight Sony Records for the rights to his masters.
HOW MJ EVOLVED HIS SOUND: THE ALBUMS
"I wanna rock with you (all night)
OFF THE WALL 1979
Actually his 5th solo, studio album, OTW is his first offering in his adult years and his first collaboration with producer Quincy Jones and shows as OTW is wrapped in pristine production values. Its arrangements utilise a style from older genres of music, such as Jazz and Classical and in the same vein as the ABBA songs, where producers Benny and Bjorn were classically trained (listen to 'Gimmie Gimmie...' it has two classical intros and an operatic deployment in the opening vocals) Michael and Quincy produced fully realised compositions that similarly, had a lot of strings right in the forefront. It should be noted that strings are present as part of the song's main make-up and are not interjected to fill in sonic gaps. Rock With You and Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough in particular have strings throughout, with a horn section offering strong support. Rooting the overall album as a contemporary piece, you cannot deny the importance of the bass guitar throughout the album, especially in the way they use it to drive the mid and uptempo songs. Working Day & Night and Get On The Floor are just 2 of the tracks that make this disco album transcend its time and genre, leaving us with a shiny, Funk & R'n'B offering, with shadings of Jazz and Pop.
Sales: 20million Copies.
The 6th studio album was the LP that pushed Michael into the stable we come to know him for. It is the first time he records a Rock song; Beat It and the gamble pays off, as it makes the top 3 in the charts of more than 12 countries. Thriller proves to be edgy, as it is ethereal. Opening up with Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' we can see that Michael hasn't lost his spirit of the boogie, as the song is like the evolution of any uptempo track from Off The Wall. Babe Be Mine and P.Y.T. act as an anchor as to say "Hey, remember Off The Wall? Well I've progressed that sound." The Girl Is Mine featuring. Sir Paul McCartney may be a gentle pop tune, but with the use of a subtle guitar and phrasings like "the gard damn girl is mine" it bares an undertone of a crooner singing a Country & Western song, that could serve to diversify Michael's audience. It's a very uncomplicated song that relies on the drama between Michael and Paul, but it allows MJ to have a public seal of approval from a member of one of the biggest bands in the world. Human Nature is a wispy soul song, sparse on anything making it feel 'corporeal'. The tune is liquid and mystical and could almost be
"Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it
choral in its nature if there was a choir doing all the background vocals and ad libs.Thriller itself is is the first heavily themed concept song and video, which in turn changes music videos forever. A light funk guitar with a 2 chord strum sits by the side of a catchy leading base riff, that provides the backbone of the whole song. Horns are brought in for the chorus with backing vocals that sound like they were sampled and played from a synth. This song, along with Billie Jean and the aforementioned Beat It, announce that this man is heading for a crossover status in a way that nobody has ever done before.
Sales: 65million copies. (Biggest Selling Album Of All Time)
"I took my baby to the doctor
"Because I'm bad, I'm bad - come on
Disco is dead. And although Bad, the very first tune on the album and other songs on the LP continue the tradition of the pop song with a driving bass line, there is definitely a heavier fusion of pop to all the songs. This makes the Bad album even more universal than Thriller. Also, in the development of synthesiser technology, what can be done with sound drastically changes and we are given an industrial, electronic pulse not previously heard in any other outing. The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal and Speed Demon all have beats that sound as if someone is hammering against something metal. Dirty Diana (this album's rock track) utilises the Roland D-50 to great effect for bass and strings. Speed Demon, Another Part Of Me and Smooth Criminal are also made off the back of this synth, with additional help from the Roland-Jupiter 8 and Synclavier. There is an increased use of percussive sounds pushed to the front of songs too, mostly shakers and claps and this is most prominent in the semi-ethereal Liberian Girl. Horns are still ever present, but this time around (no pun intended) they are brought in to take songs to a crescendo or end a song, rather than help lay the whole track. Bad is MJ's ultimate pop crossover LP.
Sales: 40million copies.
The most comprehensive of all the MJ albums, if Dangerous had just one disco-funk track on it, this would be the only MJ album to have every type of music he made present. Dangerous still stands as the culmination of everything he was capable of producing (in my opinion) and oddly, it is also the first album since Off The Wall where Quincy Jones is not onboard as producer. Dangerous is also the first album to incorporate New Jack Swing and Hip-Hop influences utilising New Jack Swing producer, singer, pioneer, co-founder of Guy and Blackstreet Teddy Riley. Co-writing 7 of the tracks and producing the first half of the album (and Dangerous the song) with Michael. The other half of the album is mostly produced by Bruce Swedien, a supremo veteran of production and studio engineering with credits to make your eyes water. Though Dangerous had the toughest sound to date, with scratching and a thicker industrial pop beat, the Hip-Hop edge doesn't prevent an increase in the use of rock and funky lead guitars. In fact the 'one rock track' per album tokenism is gone and that sound becomes part and parcel of many songs, such as Why You Wanna Trip On Me, Black Or White and Give In to Me. In addition to stepping into the street sound and increasing the rock output, MJ also adds gospel songs in the shape of Will You Be There and Keep The Faith, the former boasting an amazing operatic intro. In the climax, Industrial Pop is taken into its furthest exploration, in the slightly poetic, avant-garde title song Dangerous. As an LP to show everything MJ could do, this is his best...in my opinion.
Sales: 35million copies.
"And it doesn't deem to matter
it utilises Brazilian drumming in a similar way, making this a very unique MJ song in his whole catalogue. The dramatic and ethereal Earth Song could have easily been produced for a theatre show. Boasting a great, emotional vocal performance by MJ; where he goes from a gentle, soulful vocal to a raw plea worthy of a rock song. History is also an album with a lot of samples and contrived intros always hammering a point to defend Michael. Tabloid Junkie is Leave Me Alone by another name or at least a sequel and has one of the best sung ad libs thrown into a MJ song. "The Sunday Times ain't a friend of mine!" History also has an increase of ballads and slower songs. You Are Not Alone which was written by R.Kelly (but later found to be plagiarised from 2 Belgian writers) is a soppy sentimental song that still hits the heart. Childhood is a Peter Panesque retrospect that could be the soundtrack to that very film. Little Susie and Smile are symphonic songs that almost sound like bonus tracks. Personally, I don't think they fit on the album and might have been better as Side B songs or saved for an album like Michael Performs with The London Symphony Orchestra. But of all MJ's albums, History is the one were he gives us the largest piece of his mind...a brave, if flawed production, but still with some amazing songs.
Sales: 40million copies.
(Biggest Selling Double Album Of All Time)
HISTORY: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE - BOOK 1 1995
A double album, comprised with a Best Of Disc, this is probably the most personal MJ album. History's topics deal directly with the emotional upheaval Michael was going through, at the hands of the press, the public and anyone else that was gunning for him. The first single Scream sung with sister Janet, sets the whole tone of the album with the very first lines: "Tired of the injustice, tired of the schemes, the lies are disgusting, so what does it mean?" Musically, Michael produced much of the album himself, then used his sister's stable producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (previously of The Time) as co-producers for many of the other tracks. Scream maintains a New Jack influence, but has a cyber essence in its make-up. Other uptempo songs such as This Time Around, Money and DS are very stripped efforts that make sure you hear what Michael is saying. In these songs, the singing arrangements, talking and ad libs are more complicated than the musical arrangements. Earth Song and They Don't Care About Us are socio-eco, political songs. The latter might have been influenced by Paul Simon's Obvious Child from the Rhythm of the Saints album as
"She seemed sincere like it was love and true romance
BLOOD ON THE DANCE FLOOR: HIStory In The Mix 1995
Mostly comprised of History songs remixed, BOTDF did have 5 unreleased songs as its lead. Blood On The Dance Floor which was actually produced by Teddy Riley for the Dangerous album has themes reminiscent of Dirty Diana, only 'Susie' in this story attempts to seduce, so she can kill. Here New Jack Swing meets a synthesised funk-pop. Morphine is by far the heaviest industrial pop song by MJ, the guitar is used as a power tool, that sounds like metal being sanded in rhythm. The song also contains a brilliant breakdown to show the fragile nature of the person who is suffering from the Morphine addiction and shows a goading by someone (perhaps the demerol itself) to take it, lying to the already afflicted addict that it won't hurt or convert them into addiction. Superfly Sister is a hark back to the Bad sound and is used to alleviate the full-on tracks that came before, though the content is very, very sexual. The overall production is very much synth based, in fact it's straight up synth-pop. Ghosts, perhaps a sequel to Thriller, is a song that also has a long video. It is a operatic New Jack Swing song and Is It Scary follows a similar suit being a Rock Opera, originally written for the Adams Family Values film. It was subsequently dropped due to contractual complications.
BOTDF is the MJ you missed that you might have wanted to hear, if you had been missing the old sounds.
Sales: 6million copies.
(Biggest Selling Remix Album of All Time)
The most underrated of all his albums and his last, MJ goes full steam ahead jumping into the most popular music of the day Hip-Hop and RnB. The album starts off strong, with 3 up-tempo cuts showing us that MJ hasn't lost his gift for songs made for the dancefloor. Unbreakable, Heartbreaker and Invincible are not tracks skating around RnB/Hip-Hop, they are full on songs comparable to other contemporary song of the day. Rodney Jerkins produced all 3 as well as the first single release; You Rock My World. YRMW is a hark back to the Rock With You and Baby Be Mine days, but modernised with contemporary sounds. Rodney also co-produces Threatened and Privacy, where the latter re-teams Michael with guitarist Slash. Teddy Riley still around offers one of the strongest uptempo songs in the form of 2000 Watts. With the slower tracks, we are either presented with a Neo-Soul or standard pop-soul sound, with classical arrangements. Speechless, You Are My Life, The Lost Children and Don't Walk Away fall into the syrupy latter. Whereas Butterflies, Heaven Can Wait and Break of Dawn are in the former. Cry is a powerful worthy successor to Man In The Mirror and Whatever Happens could have been a real foray into some latin sounds, but only brushes the edges, though Carlos Santana features on guitar. Invincible is not a weak legacy, listen properly once and you will come back again and again.
Sales: 13million copies.
Producers include Teddy Riley, Andre Harris, R Kelly, Babyface, Dr.Freeze and Andreao Fanatic' Heard.
INFLUENCE on production