1. Michael Jackson, “In The Closet” (1992)
Of all the sounds the human voice can make, few are as underused—yet as versatile—as whispering. That goes double for music. In song, whispering can be anything from romantic (as in Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus”) to hilarious (De La Soul’s “Can U Keep A Secret”). Often, though, whispers are just plain weird. Case in point: Michael Jackson’s 1992 song “In The Closet.” It’s odd enough that Jackson seems to be mischievously fanning the flame of speculation about his sexuality rather than either avoiding it or addressing it directly. Odder still is the song’s whispered intro: “There’s something I have to say to you / If you promise you’ll understand / I cannot contain myself / I’m in your presence, I’m so humble / Touch me, don’t hide our love / Woman to man.” Delivered by, of all people, Princess Stephanie of Monaco, it only serves to further confuse, rather than clarify, whatever it is Jackson is trying to say in the song.
2. Ying Yang Twins, “Wait (The Whisper Song)” (2005)
Crunk duo Ying Yang Twins scored a hit in 2005 with the slinky, lascivious “Wait (The Whisper Song).” In it, members Kaine and D-Roc spend three steamy minutes whispering into the ear of the target of their lust. There’s nothing subtle about the group’s proposition, though, best summed up in the lines, “Walk around the club with your thumb in your mouth / Put my dick in, take your thumb out.” If nothing else, Ying Yang Twins deserve some kind of credit for making the most subdued crunk song ever.
3. PJ Harvey, “The Wind” (1998)
Alt-rock icon Polly Jean Harvey has something in common with Ying Yang Twins: She’s not afraid to whisper throughout an entire song. On her 1998 song “The Wind,” the singer-songwriter whispers throughout her verses, incessantly imploring the listener to “listen to the wind blow.” The effect is both elemental and unsettling. It isn’t the first time Harvey whispered in song—she did so eerily in 1995’s “Down By The Water”—but on “The Wind,” she positively wallows in the hush.
4. Kate Bush, “Under Ice” (1985)
Like PJ Harvey, Kate Bush is creative and bold with her use of vocal quietude. On “Under Ice,” part of a song-cycle that composes the second half of her 1985 masterpiece, Hounds Of Love, she sketches a frigid scenario of drowning while searching for a way out of a frozen lake—a metaphor for frantically trying to wake up from a nightmare. Bush’s brother and fellow musician Paddy Bush not only contributes instrumentation to “Under Ice,” he voices its most chilling line: At the end of the song, beneath a wash of icy synthesizer, he harshly whispers, “Wake up!” It hauntingly punctuates the album’s surreal sensation of dreams within dreams.
5. Hole, “Dying” (1998)
It’s not entirely clear what Courtney Love is singing about in “Dying,” a song from Hole’s 1998 album, Celebrity Skin. But it is clear what it seems like she’s singing about: her late husband, Kurt Cobain. With couplets like, “Our love is quicksand / So easy to drown” and “Now I know that love is dead / You’ve come to bury me,” the song has been interpreted as some twisted rumination on Cobain’s suicide four years prior. That impression is neither confirmed nor denied by Love’s cryptic, whispered opening lines, which might have something to do with Cobain’s hatred of fame—or maybe just with Love’s addled incoherence: “You see the cripple dance / Pay your money, baby / Now’s your chance / Eyes like cyanide.”
6. Foo Fighters, “Everlong” (1997)
Courtney Love isn’t the only person close to Kurt Cobain who found a compelling use for whispering in song. On “Everlong,” a 1997 hit single by Foo Fighters, frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl hits an instrumental break in the middle of the song that becomes a mini-symphony of whispery weirdness. Produced so that the actual words are shrouded in multi-tracking and effects, Grohl’s indecipherable whispers have been pondered and dissected for years. One thing is for sure, though: They make for a creepy interlude in an otherwise anthemic tune.
7. Tool, “Hooker With A Penis” (1996)
Maynard James Keenan of art-metal outfit Tool can be lyrically obscure at times. And then he has songs like “Hooker With A Penis.” The scathing 1996 track addresses a disenchanted Tool fan who accuses Keenan of selling out by turning the allegation around, declaring that fans and bands alike are complicit in the commercialization of music. Keenan’s howling sarcasm and rage, though, are subliminally underlined by the phrase he whispers, barely audibly, in the midst of the maelstrom: “Consume, be fruitful, and multiply.”
8. Guns N’ Roses, “Estranged” (1991)
By the time Use Your Illusion I and II came out in 1991, leader Axl Rose was already well on the path to megalomania. Proof of that can be heard on II’s “Estranged.” The nearly 10-minute power ballad not only lasts twice as long as it should, it’s a showcase for Rose’s audience-as-therapist approach to songwriting. Worse than all the mumbling, confessional verses, though, is the laughably creepy way he feels the need to whisper the word “alone” whenever it comes up in the song. See, because that’s how he feels. No wonder a generation of young GnR fans grew up to be emo kids in the ’00s.
9. The Clash, “Straight To Hell” (1982)
When Joe Strummer whispers, “Drop, drop!” in The Clash’s cover of Toots And The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” it’s all part of the fun. There’s nothing upbeat, though, about his delivery of 1982’s “Straight To Hell.” A stream-of-consciousness spiel about colonialism, drug addiction, and economic injustice, the moody, ethereal song isn’t just a Clash classic—it’s a Strummer tour de force. But one of the song’s most gripping moments is when he drops his voice toward the end of his Beat-like narrative to stingingly whisper, “Straight to hell.” It’s as if he’s turning directly to the listener and issuing a point-blank marching order.
10. The Cure, “Lullaby” (1989)
“I spy something beginning with S,” hisses Robert Smith at the start of “Lullaby,” setting a sinuous tone for the 1989 song by The Cure. Snaky and sibilant, Smith’s vocals are hypnotically sinister enough to make “Lullaby” less lulling and more horrific. What follows is a catalog of terrors perpetrated by “the spiderman,” a creature set on devouring Smith as he sleeps. His whispery intro gives the whole macabre story an air of fairy-tale eeriness.
11. Nine Inch Nails, “The Downward Spiral” (1994)
The ghostly ambience of “The Downward Spiral”—the title track of Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album—is foreboding enough even before the whispers start. The song pulses and bobs on waves of sampled atmospherics and acoustic guitar, a tense interlude that does anything but let the listener rest. When NIN mastermind Trent Reznor splices in his muted, incomprehensible whisper in the track’s final minute, though, it’s as if he’s praying for the end. Of everything.
12. David Bowie, “Fame” (1975)
David Bowie has been known to pen an impenetrable lyric or two, but he’s a bit more glaringly sphinx-like on his 1975 hit “Fame.” Co-written by and featuring John Lennon, the song makes no secret of its meaning: As much as the two superstars crave and thrive on fame, fame is bad. But Bowie whispers a line as the song fades out that’s been open to interpretation for decades. “Feeling so gay” is the most common translation, which seems like more of a sarcastic commentary on Bowie’s emotional state than some clue to his sexual orientation, still a point of conjecture in the ’70s, although recordings of his 1978 tour capture him clearly whispering, “Brings so much pain.” Either way, point taken.
13. Pink Floyd, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (1968)
“Careful With That Axe, Eugene” sounds like the title of a story that’s just dying to be told; instead, Pink Floyd uses it for one of its early instrumentals. The song first appeared as a B-side in 1968 before resurfacing as a live track on Ummagumma and as part of the soundtrack to Zabriskie Point (re-recorded under the equally evocative name “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up”). In spite of all that mileage, there’s no real meaning behind the throbbing, psychedelic epic—that is, besides David Gilmour’s menacing whisper of the song’s title, followed appropriately by Roger Waters’ scream.
14. The Mothers Of Invention, “Are You Hung Up?” (1968)
Even when the late Frank Zappa is orchestrating voices and noise instead of instruments, he exerts his prankish iconoclasm. On “Are You Hung Up?,” a minute-and-a-half track from The Mothers Of Invention’s 1968 album We’re Only In It For The Money, he manipulates a recording of Eric Clapton babbling like a stoned hippie, among other sound sources. But the funniest, weirdest statements that surface in the song’s sonic stew are from studio engineer Gary Kellgren—himself a recording pioneer—who whispers with mock nihilism, “One of these days I’m going to erase all the tape in the world… Tomorrow I may do it… All the Frank Zappa masters… Nothing but blank, empty space.” It’s exactly the kind of self-negating sentiment Zappa himself wholly endorsed.
15. The Rolling Stones, “Angie” (1973)
It says something about The Rolling Stones that many of the group’s attempts at poignancy still have a leering undertone. “Angie” is one of those examples. The 1973 ballad is touching, but maybe in the wrong sense of the word; as Mick Jagger pines for the song’s titular lady in his cracked croon, he starts sounding more like an obsessed jerk than just some lovelorn sap. But the kicker is when he desperately whispers her name, his mouth far too close to the microphone than is wholly appropriate. If in doubt about the creepiness of “Angie,” just ask anyone named Angie.
16. The Beatles, “Come Together” (1969)
An entire book could be written exclusively about hidden meanings—real or otherwise—in Beatles songs. There’s nothing hidden about John Lennon’s opening words in “Come Together.” The indelible opening track of 1969’s Abbey Road begins with a churning rhythm that flows into an equally agitated track, one whose cheery title belies its darkness. But it’s John Lennon’s whispered chant that starts the song off on a sour-hearted note: “Shoot me,” he says under his breath, sounding as if he’s making a hypnotic suggestion. Tragically, 11 years later Mark David Chapman would take him up on that whispered request.