kottke.org posts about Michael Jackson

The origins of the moonwalkApr 23 2014

We all know Michael Jackson invented the moonwalk on-stage during a performance of Billie Jean at the Motown 25th Anniversary show. What this video presupposes is, maybe he didn't?

What the video shows is that as early as the 1930s, performers such as Fred Astaire, Bill Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Sammy Davis Jr. were doing something like the moonwalk. Now, Jackson didn't get the move from any of these sources, not directly anyway. As Jackson's choreographer Jeffrey Daniel explains, he got the moves from The Electric Boogaloos street dance crew and, according to LaToya Jackson, instructed Michael Jackson.

Which is to say, the moonwalk is yet another example of multiple discovery, along with calculus, the discovery of oxygen, and the invention of the telephone. (via open culture)

How to make your own slow jamsAug 26 2013

A couple of weeks ago, a slowed-down version of Dolly Parton's classic ballad "Jolene" went viral. A lot of people who heard it loved it, a few people didn't, but everyone seemed to agree that it was like listening to either an entirely new song or the same song again for the first time.

One of the things that's eerie about this is that if you listen closely, everything is just a little bit out of tune. There's conflicting information about exactly how much the track has been slowed. Some people have said that it's simulating a 45 RPM record played at 33 1/3, which is certainly the most common way people who lived with record players heard popular songs at slower speeds. But that would actually be quite a bit slower and lower than this.

The other figure I've seen (forgive me for not citing everything, I'm typing as fast as I can) is "Jolene" has been slowed by 17 percent, which sounds about right and would explain why all the notes seem just a little bit sharp. Here's the formula for slowing or speeding up a recording to shift the pitch but generally stay in tune:

(2 ^ (semitones change/12) - 1) *100 = Percent Change

So -- as one does when procrastinating from remunerative work -- I made an Excel spreadsheet.

If you want to drop two semitones, you shift the speed down by 12.2462 percent; drop three, you shift by 18.9207 percent, which significantly changes the track. To imitate a 45 RPM record played at 33 1/3, that's about 25.926, but very few records still sound like something a person actually made at this speed. All of these slowdowns are interesting, even the ones that don't work.

You can do all of them in the free/open-source audio processing app Audacity; it's very fast and very easy. (If you want to get freaky, you can also use Audacity to change pitch without changing tempo, or vice versa, or to start out slow and go fast, and all manner of lesser and greater perversity.)

But after messing with Audacity for longer than was strictly necessary, I can tell you that some songs and transformations work out better than others, and they tend to be those that share a lot of the same characteristics as Jolene:

  • A mix of quick and slow instrumentation, so there's a lot of information density. It almost has to be fractal; the more you slow it down, the more minute structures you find. The original song itself can actually be slow or fast; many fast songs really don't work, and quite a few slow ones do.
  • High-pitched, typically (but not always) female vocals, so the song sounds like a person singing and not a voice-distorted growling dude from To Catch A Predator.
  • The song needs to be fairly popular, so you can listen to the slow version and keep the regular-speed version in mind. This kind of continual allusion just makes it a richer experience.

And so, here are some of the results:

I described this Prince track as sounding like the slowest, sultriest, funkiest Sylvester song you've ever heard.

Mazzy Star surprised me. I always thought Hope Sandoval's vocals were gorgeous but a little warbly, which gave them character, but that's almost entirely a production effect. When you slow it down, you can really hear how clean and sustained her notes are.

My Bloody Valentine is the best example of that fractal quality. You can slow it down almost indefinitely and it still sounds like My Bloody Valentine. At this rate, though, it really just turns Bilinda Butcher's vocals into Kevin Shields'.

There's more at my Soundcloud page, including The Breeders' "Cannonball," "House of Jealous Lovers," Hot Chip's "Over and Over," Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks" (which I actually sped up), and more. (Finally, if slowing a track down and posting it online somehow breaks copyright, let me know and I'll take them down.)

Update: Andy Baio tips me to a second remix of "Jolene" that slows down the track, but corrects the pitch. Sounds great.

Update 2: Here's Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." slowed from 127 BPM to 110 BPM, leaving the pitch as-is.

ThrillerJun 25 2010

Vanity Fair has an article about Michael Jackson and the shooting of the Thriller video, a point in time when he was at the top of his game but already showing signs of his future troubles.

Jackson faced a critical moment in his personal development: would his new mega-success and wealth spur him to grow, becoming more confident and independent, or to withdraw further into his gilded fantasy world? His "Thriller" friends marveled at his paradoxical qualities: simultaneously sophisticated as an artist, canny to the point of ruthlessness in business dealings, and breathtakingly immature about relationships. "I dealt with Michael as I would have a really gifted child," says Landis, "because that's what he was at that moment. He was emotionally damaged, but so sweet and so talented."

Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition winnersSep 11 2009

Winners in the Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition have been announced. Evan Roth, a noted Michael Jackson enthusiast, came in first. I like the second place entry only slightly more:

A gold-plated wind turbine powers an interactively-lit dance floor and speaker system. Michael Jackson's music plays day and night for the fans that congregate in these remote sand flats.

MJ tshirts are the new Obama tshirtSep 01 2009

A collection of Michael Jackson tribute shirts worn to the recent Spike Lee-hosted birthday party for Jackson.

Tron Legacy trailerJul 24 2009

They're making a new Tron movie. And it looks like it might not suck! (via @dburka)

Update: The Tron Legacy trailer and Michael Jackson's Beat It match up pretty well, don't they?

Eternal MoonwalkJul 11 2009

This is pretty awesome: a bunch of videos strung together to make it seem like one long moonwalk. In tribute to Michael Jackson, of course. What's amazing is that for the 4-5 minutes I watched, there was not a single decent moonwalk...just people shuffling backwards. (via vsl)

Update: Matt Zoller Seitz analyzes Eternal Moonwalk and finds much to love about it.

Eternal Moonwalk is also an incidental tutorial in the basic properties of cinema. It returns motion pictures to their origin point, when the medium's core appeal was the chance to watch strangers performing, their bodies moving from Point A to Point B, their familiar or amusing actions serving as an emotional connection point, a reminder that we're members of the same species inhabiting the same small world.

Michael Jackson dead at 50Jun 25 2009

From the NY Times:

L.A. Times Reports Jackson Is Dead | 6:24 p.m. The newspaper cited "city and law enforcement sources." The networks and CNN are also broadcasting the news, citing the Times story.

The LA Times story is here but isn't loading right now. Twitter is melting down a little. RIP, King of Pop.

Update: The LA Times story is loading now. Here's what it says:

Pop star Michael Jackson was pronounced dead by doctors this afternoon after arriving at a hospital in a deep coma, city and law enforcement sources told The Times.

Update: My favorite Michael Jackson performance is from the MTV Awards in 1995.

It's not a groundbreaking performance or anything -- it's like a greatest hits package -- but I had it taped on VHS and watched it many many times, wondering how a person could move like that.

Off the WallFeb 17 2009

The items up for sale in the forthcoming Michael Jackson auction indicate that Jackson spent the 80s fashioning Neverland Ranch into a cross between Buckingham Palace and Ricky Stratton's house in Silver Spoons. (via clusterflock)

"Thriller" is 25Dec 03 2007

Epic Records/Legacy Recordings is releasing a 25th Anniversary Special Edition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," with bonus tracks including remixes by Akon, will.i.am, and Kanye West.

There's a nice interview on NPR with Chris Connelly, who reviewed the album for Rolling Stone in 1982.

An alternate album cover for the original Special Edition of "Thriller" can be found on wikipedia, for a look at what could have been.

Legendary mime Marcel Marceau died Saturday atSep 23 2007

Legendary mime Marcel Marceau died Saturday at age 84.

Michael Jackson borrowed his famous "moonwalk" from a Marceau sketch, "Walking Against the Wind."

I tried to find video of that sketch but came up empty.

Update: Here's some video of Marceau teaching wind walking to a class...and miming with Michael Jackson. (thx, andy & mike)

Update: Here's a better video of Marceau doing his wind walk, from a Mel Brooks movie no less. (thx, manuel)

The White Glove Tracking site needs yourMay 03 2007

The White Glove Tracking site needs your help in finding Michael Jackson's white glove in all 10,060 frames of Jackson's performance of Billy Jean. "Rather then write unnecessarily complex code to find the glove in every frame of the video I am asking for the assistance of 10,060 individual internet users to simply click and drag a box around the glove in one frame." Don't stop 'til you get enough (white gloves located).

Patented Michael Jackson movesJun 13 2006

You know that patented move that Michael Jackson does in the Smooth Criminal video where he leans and looks like he's going to tip over but then he doesn't? Turns out Jackson actually did patent that method back in 1993. The drawings are pretty funny.

"Every Halloween in Lexington, KY, they blockNov 02 2005

"Every Halloween in Lexington, KY, they block off the streets and recreate Michael Jackson's Thriller video."

Tags related to Michael Jackson:
music video dance

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