"After attending a show by his old friend and rival Prince at the Palms hotel with Will (Will.I.Am), MJ invited him to have breakfast at his house. "We've always been compared to each other, but we are so different," Michael once said of the Purple One, who had made a point of showing off for Will and Jackson, jamming in front of them with his bass guitar. "He was always viewed as the songwriter and I was always the entertainer. But they've never really l acknowledged that I write. I wrote "Billie Jean", "Beat It", "Man in the Mirror". "We Are the World"...big songs. I have so much love for Prince. But why don't they look at me the same way?
--from Vibe Magazine, July 2010
(Side Note: Michael did not write "Man in the Mirror"--Siedah Garrett did specifically for him)
Once in a century do musical greats like Prince (Nelson) and Michael Jackson come about to essentially "own" a decade. Strange, too, that both were born in 1958, both born in the Midwest, both African-American, both have some of the same idols (both own much of their artistry to another great, James Brown), both came from regular families and both were born with amazing talent evident at an early age with a correlating drive for success that included a vocabulary that did not possess the words "no" or "impossible" as an answer for anything related to their talents. There are other similarities, too, but I think everyone gets the point.
However, many people for whatever reasons compare Michael and Prince as musicians. This is a fatal flaw. Aspects of their artistry make these men nearly polar opposites, in my belief. Both are usually lumped into the same genre though both have the tendency to cross genres, be it Pop, R&B, etc. But, beyond that fact, like Michael said from the quote from Vibe magazine and me knowing both of their music and careers well, I think they have basically nothing in common artistically and are not even in the same realms of genius. Both are geniuses, geniuses in their own respect, but it is different. To me, it is like comparing an abstract painter to a realist painter--both are artists, both paint, both may use oil paints but their approach is different and should not be held in the same light.
Both men are dubbed as perfectionists even though early in their careers Prince put out about an album a year compared to Michael's an album once every 4 or so years. Michael was always mainstream and heavily commercialized (which in some ways likely hurt him by clouding his artistry). Prince enjoyed many years as an "underground" artist. Both have a large amount of unreleased music, however Michael's unreleased music has kept itself well-hidden for the most part (for now). Prince's collection of bootlegs, videos and soundboard collections are a part of what makes him so incredible and in some ways respected even by those who do not like his music. You know someone is a hard-core fan and in it for the music when they can name songs upon songs of Prince's that have never found waves on the radio or their names on the cover of album sleeves. Prince's underground music collection is so vast it almost requires another language to explain it to others. I could delve further and also say that Michael's songs were a bit more "family-friendly" and Prince's work, at least early work, is highly explicit and at times X-rated. I have personally always found Michael's lyrics very straight-forward with a few exceptions--Prince's lyrics many times make sense to no one and may not even make sense to him. Prince fans are still guessing at who "Cynthia" is in "Starfish and Coffee" and maybe it is just me but it seems odd that in "Let's Go Crazy" Satan is referred to as the "elevator" and God as "going crazy". Okay Prince, I will take your word on that and admire your creativity. Mind you, this is a man who has said songs come to him while brushing his teeth so maybe he uses some funky toothpaste, perhaps? I want some!
Something very fundamental that separates these men is Prince's instrumental talents and Michael's lack thereof. I am not saying Michael did not or was not capable of playing instruments but he never did so while performing and I would think he would be considered a novice at any instrument he did play. Prince plays just about any instrument so long as it is not a horn (though he supposedly played the saxophone in junior high and does give direction to horn players on his albums). Some may disagree with me but I truly believe Prince has to be one of the top 5 guitarists to ever live--take it or leave it. His chord structures are amazing and the man plays a guitar as easily as he breathes--just watch him live and you will see what I mean. Prince's guitar skills allow him to methodically tune his guitars away from the classic E-A-D-G-B-E structure into tunes even professionals continue to guess at today. Keep in mind, this is a man who is essentially self-taught, too. I had the honor of being included in a discussion with Prince years ago and he mentioned practicing his guitar while in high school--he was happy his teachers allowed him to do so. (I remember him saying he was bad at math, too, but I have a hard time believing that to be honest.)
Many feel Michael's sole instrument was his body--his body through the instrument of dance especially. True, many say Michael is one of the best if not the best dancer to live. No one should deny his dancing as true an art form as playing the guitar or piano--all forms mentioned are that of artistic expression. However, I think this aspect of Michael's artistic talent, coupled with his love of magic, fantasy and pure showmanship (he did admire P.T. Barnum the circus magnate) hurt his career and further dealt him a lack of respect at being dubbed an artist or songwriter like Prince or Stevie Wonder. At his core, Michael was a showman like Jackie Wilson whose power and delivery was from his vocals and just his sheer presence and was gloried by his movement and ownership of the perfect body for dance, much like Michael Phelps is said to have the perfect body "engineered" for swimming.
It makes sense that Michael would go for making his shows more than just a show--he saw performers like Jackie Wilson perform since he was a child. Both Michael and Prince idolized James Brown and saw him perform live (Prince has said he got to dance on stage at a James Brown concert as a young child while Michael watched him from the side of the stage before performing himself). I have had the honor of seeing Prince perform live many times and now that I think about it, Prince is not too far off from being some sort of incarnation of James Brown, especially as he has gotten older.
But back to Michael and his dancing, we as a public, should not have expected Michael to be able to dance as he did when he was 20 years old forever and ever. Maybe some of us did not, people who appreciate real art do not hold unreal expectations. However, some fans seemed to never accept the fact that Michael was indeed human and like all of us had to grow up and he had to grow older, too. Some were angry that he even grew up to become a man and could not forever be "Little Michael". Come on people, get real. Maybe even Michael tried to deny the fact of physical aging himself as I figure he did (Peter Pan ring a bell?). Michael needed to shift from that aspect of his talent, the dancing, but what did he have to shift to? His vocal talent is superb, no doubt. I see a lot of people claiming he lip-synced. Well, yes in some concerts he did--but to those people who say that, have you ever tried to dance and sing at the same time? Try, see what happens and let me know. It does not take much to listen to Michael sing as a child or sing acapella and see the man possessed perfect pitch. But, his need to have put on such a show that he had to compromise his vocals for movement and dance is actually an example of his own talents being buried by other aspects of his art and creativity. He put so much emphasis on dance and movement and spectacle and just SHOW that he forgot what got him on top--his vocals and charisma. Anyone who enjoys music, especially Michael's, should have been happy and considered ourselves blessed to just be in the same room with his man and hear him sing anything his heart desired while he sat on a sofa with his feet perched on a coffee table. As Michael got older I wish he has shifted away from the pyrotechnics, the flying around on stage, even the "ups on the toes" and reverted more to focusing on vocals, new music and other creative outlets such as film. Prince has certainly done this in some ways--you will not see Prince doing the splits anymore or sticking a basketball court on stage and we should all be okay with that (though I would LOVE to play him in a game of horse sometime).
There is no doubt that Michael had a firm foundation of rhythm and melody. This may sound odd but I actually enjoyed hearing the "Dangerous" deposition tapes (available on YouTube) because I actually learned a lot about Michael and his method of creating music. One thing I never forget from these tapes is his discussion about the Moog synthesizer. Many times with Prince's music I think of the Linn drum machine, conversely. These men know music and know what makes good music.
Michael's foundation of rhythm is firmly heard in songs like "Billie Jean" and you can hear his construction of melody in "Beat It" from the "This Is It" soundtrack. If you listen to "Stranger in Moscow" you can visually picture Michael beat-boxing the rhythm. The man could beat-box and this was his method of getting the music "out". Michael's beat-boxing reminds me a lot someone that he and I both completely love and admire--Charlie Chaplin. Many do not know that Charlie was an accomplished musician. His most famous song is likely "Smile". Charlie played the violin and cello by actually restringing them and playing them left-handed, no less. I do not know how good Charlie was, but he at least apparently was able to place the bow on the strings (he actually said that Albert Einstein played the violin and frankly, he um, sucked). Anyway, Charlie wrote and composed many classical compositions and even had a company in his early years called "Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company".
To the point, Charlie, being unable to skillfully play the piano or any instrument in a way to get the music "out" had to hum songs from his head to composers who then helped him construct his compositions. Sometimes it took hours and days to finally get one song "right". Some pianists would just quit, but some toughed it out, including Eric James who wrote a book about working with Charlie. My point is, even though Charlie did not play an instrument well enough to be considered "accomplished" he is still considered in the art world to be a spectacular musician. The same principle should apply to Michael even if he, too, was not an accomplished instrumentalist. He did write many of his own songs lyrically and did construct the melody and rhythm to many of them, too. In fact, Michael is included in the Songwriters' Hall of Fame:
Shockingly enough, Prince is not a member. A protest may need to occur if this is not some type of error.
Even though Michael is in the Songwriter's Hall of Fame (and rightfully so) Michael was right when he said many do not look at him as a songwriter or even musician as I have pointed out before. People lump him into the likes of many of the "singers" today that are just up there flashing skin while be it yelling, auto-tuning, etc.--these people are merely puppets of a dying music industry that really ought to go back to its roots and seek out talent rather than commercially appealing actors and actresses. I admit that at a time I myself was not aware of Michael's artistry though I know it very well now as anyone who loves music should be aware and at least acknowledge Michael's talent whether they like his music or not. While Michael may be hailed as a performer he does not get much of the musical genius he deserves by those who are not fans and something should be done about this. He is admired and idolized by his fans but those who are not fans typically dismiss him as a musician or even an artist and this is wrong. Michael's role in the development of his music, his choreography, how you viewed him on stage, what you viewed in his "short films" aka music videos--that was all him or a good part of him. I remember Janet saying much of her guidance came from Michael, be it music or acting--he was the consummate artist from a young age.
It is sad, I sit here thinking that one of Michael's likely most precious hidden talents lay behind the camera, not in front of it or an audience. He knew what people wanted (more feet when James Brown danced), he knew what the audience would prefer to see (he spoke about how he used 6 cameras and chose what he wanted people to view), he knew how to act, maybe not in a movie so much as on stage (see his dramatic delivery of "You Were There" to Sammy Davis Jr. available on YouTube). I think Michael could have been one hell of a Broadway performer, too. But, more than anything I believe Michael had the potential to be known as one of the most superb directors (and writers) of our time (like Charlie) had he not gotten so entangled with drama from outside sources that created the beginning of the downfall of his career. I also believe these malicious and almost always baseless attacks are perhaps the most pivotal reason his artistry is either not respected or not known by many across the globe. It is my hope that someday people will know the truth about Michael, his talent and most of all his life.