(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)
I don't normally discuss matters of musical taste. I think musical taste is...well...a question of taste. Adiaphorous.
But the Michael Jackson phenomenon introduces aesthetic standards into the debate. I often run across an argument that goes something like this: "Sure, Jackson was weird, but he was also a great song-and-dance man. So, to be fair, you have to balance the good with the bad."
My major problem with this argument concerns the moral priorities. Even if he was a great "artist," that hardly offsets his moral deficits.
However, another problem I have with this argument is that I don't accept either premise.
A lot of folks only listen to pop vocalism. As a result, their standards of vocalism are set by pop vocalism. What they consider great singing is great by the standards of pop vocalism. And they’re entitled to listen to whomever they please.
But by the same token, when I'm told by others that Jackson was a great vocalist, I'm entitled to disagree.
Singing, especially great singing, is a form of athleticism. To be a great athlete, you need a great natural endowment. You also need the skill to properly exploit your natural endowment.
And, to be frank, if you want to hear great singing, opera is the place to go. Notice I didn't say you should listen to opera. By and large, opera is a fairly decadent art form. But the opera stage sets the standard of great vocalism (not that all opera singers are great singers.)
Pop vocalism is to opera what badminton is to Wimbledon, put-put golf is to Augusta, or a pick-up game of football is to the Super Bowl.
Finally, classical vocalism, like many sports, develops the distinctive resources of the male and female body. In that respect it's a projection of masculinity or femininity. And that raises it above mere aesthetics.
It wouldn't hurt some folks who extol Jackson's musical "genius" to expose themselves to some genuine standards of vocal excellence.
Here are three examples of great male vocalism, representing tenor, baritone, and basso ranges respectively:
And here are some examples of great female vocalism: