I only say this because to the casual music fan, it might not be apparent. Whether it was because so much about him — his dance moves, his style, his swagger — was so dynamic, or because he rarely spoke above a whisper, or even because he frequently peppered his verses with vocal ticks (like those oft-imitated "Hee-hee's"), Jackson remains one of the most underrated vocal artists in music history.
And that's a shame, because his voice was a wondrous thing, capable of reaching both towering heights (the final verse of "Rock With You") and depths ("Childhood"). It was technical, but it was also decidedly human, too, full of pump-priming rage ("Man in the Mirror") one minute, tethered tenderness the next ("She's Out of My Life"). It was a finely tuned instrument that, when unfurled, revealed all the pain and frustration and joy of Jackson's life ... a window inside the man's soul. It could stop you in your tracks and raise the hair on the back of your neck. It was something to behold.
But don't take my word for it. Just listen to "This Is It," the title track to Jackson's posthumous concert-film/double album that premiered at midnight on Monday (October 12). Because if anything, it's reinforcement of my original point: Jackson was a powerhouse vocalist.
The origins of the song may remain cloudy — it was reportedly written in 1980, in the fertile period between Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller albums, and recorded in the mid-to-late '80s, in between the Bad and Dangerous albums — but really, none of that really matters: "This Is It" is a prime showcase for Jackson's prodigious pipes, which means that the best way to experience it — indeed, the best way to pay tribute to the man and his music — is to turn the volume up, sit back, and just listen.
Ignore the trilling strings, and the soft-jazz/light-funk backing track (which sort of make the song sound like Off the Wall's "I Can't Help It.") Block out the hype surrounding the song's release and the drama surrounding Jackson's death. Focus on those vocals — the way Jackson counts it in with a boyish "one, two, three, four," the way he glides from verse to verse with breathless, effortless phrasing, the lean-yet-heavy falsetto, the hint of gravel (and gravitas) is the verses, the soaring choruses — it's all there, untarnished by time or tabloids. And it's all wonderful.
In a lot of ways, "This Is It" might be the perfect Michael Jackson tune. And by that I mean, while it's by no means his best, or his most memorable, it might be his most representative. It's a mixture of his yearning early years and his messianic later period, and it shines a light on the best aspects of both: His voice.
Because, just in case you weren't aware, Michael Jackson was a hell of a singer.