Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reflecting on Michael Jackson

(Originally written June 26, 2009)

There will never be another Michael Jackson. Many have tried, but no one succeeds in creating the kind of excitement and magic Michael was able to conjure on record, on stage, and in his many classic music videos. There has never been a more complete artist; a powerful yet wholly unique voice, charisma to spare, dancing that absolutely boggles the mind, incredible songwriting, and sheer creative genius. He had it all…and then lost it all. And people can blame whatever they want for Michael’s long and painful fall from grace (childhood trauma, drugs, self-hatred, mental disorders, etc.), but inevitably it was his peerless, undeniable talent that both catapulted him to a level of fame restricted to religious deities and royalty, and then completely ravaged his personal and professional life. No human being should be THAT famous. I would venture to say that Michael Jackson was probably the most famous person in the world at one point, blessed with a powerful gift; the ability to hypnotize and inspire millions and millions of people with his art.

As with all great artists, Michael had obvious influences. Certainly the Motown greats he literally grew up around were hugely influential. Michael had the fragile, emotion-drenched vocals of Marvin Gaye, the songwriting prowess and socially-conscious subject matter of Stevie Wonder, and the charisma and star power of Diana Ross. He was most definitely a student of the Beatles as well, having mastered the art of the simple but deeply moving pop song.

And then there’s James Brown. Probably the only other artist in music history that can actually hold a candle to James Brown as a performer, Michael worshipped him. Brown’s influence is all over Michael’s work, from his frenetic footwork to his savage, ad-libbed howls and yelps. Jackie Wilson and Fred Astaire were also important to Michael’s particular style of performance, but James Brown would always be his primary inspiration and definitely his favorite artist.

And yet, as with all great artists, Michael Jackson stands alone as a true original and, along with Prince, easily the most influential artist of the past 30 years. Madonna, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Usher, TLC, NSYNC, Chris Brown, Neyo, Robin Thicke, and basically anyone who has either made pop music or made a music video in the past 25 years owes something to Michael Jackson. Before Michael Jackson, music videos were low-budget and unimportant, MTV was still relatively small and not playing ANY black artists, and music magazines would not even put black artists on their covers. By 1983-84 artists like Prince, Lionel Ritchie and Whitney Houston had broken through and received some airplay, but Michael Jackson was the first. “Billie Jean” was simply too amazing to be ignored.

And apparently that was the point. Coming off of the huge, if somewhat underwhelming success of Off The Wall (compared to Thriller, at least), and in the face of racism and indifference from the white-controlled music industry, Michael’s aim with Thriller was quite literally to take over the world. He wanted every song to be a potential hit, and he wanted every song to appeal to a different demographic. Once again enlisting Quincy Jones as a producer for the project (Jones also produced Off The Wall), Michael worked tirelessly on Thriller, and covered nearly ever base of popular music. If there is one knock against Thriller, it’s that this strategy inherently forsakes cohesiveness, in favor of a “something for everyone” experience. There’s hard rock (Beat It), lush balladry (Human Nature), slow jams (The Lady In My Life), chaotic dance floor workouts (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’), theatrical, concept songs (Thriller), bubblegum pop (The Girl Is Mine), and dark, mature funk (Billie Jean). Thriller had a massive impact on the record industry, changing the way albums were created and marketed. Suddenly the level of success an album could have and the demographic an album could be directed towards expanded drastically. Additionally, music videos became a must for any artist looking for the kind of success Michael had, and the popularity of MTV exploded. You could liken the breakout success of Thriller to that of Usher’s “Confessions”, Justin’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds”, or Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad” for perspective, but none of these albums, or the success they had, comes close to comparing to Thriller. Michael pioneered the idea of making albums with no filler, albums where every song could be a hit single. 7 of the albums 9 songs were top ten hits, a feat no one has matched. Thriller has sold 100 million albums worldwide, won 8 Grammy awards, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best selling album of all time.

Over the next ten years Michael embarked on a series of world tours that would each outdo the last as the biggest selling tour of all time. No one is, was or ever will be as big as Michael Jackson. But with all the talk of record and ticket sales, what often gets lost in conversations about the man is the actual songs. Michael Jackson is the gold standard of pop music. “Human Nature” is sublime. The rapid fire, falsetto vocals on the chorus of “Smooth Criminal” is a stroke of utter genius, and “Billie Jean” is quite possibly the most influential pop song of the 1980s and beyond. “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” still tears up any dance floor across the globe, “I Want You Back” (with the Jackson 5) is up there with the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” as one the purest, most perfect pop songs ever made, and even “You Are Not Alone”, one of Michael’s last big hits, is the perfect slow jam. There are many Michael Jackson songs that, depending on my mood and the situation, I’ll call my absolute favorite, so I won’t even go there. However, I will say that “Will You Be There”, off 1991’s Dangerous album, is probably his most fascinating song lyrically. Backed by a full choir and the Cleveland Orchestra, Michael sings of the alienation and isolation his celebrity status has brought him.

“But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
And fight 'til the end
But I'm only human”

I won’t waste time writing about his downfall, his legal troubles, or even the nature of his death. That’s for the coroners, journalists and self-righteous pundits and talking heads to mull over. Because inevitably, Michael WAS only human. Skin, muscle and bones just like the rest of us. I didn’t know the human being that was Michael Jackson, and neither did you. We knew Michael Jackson, the performer. So fuck trying to figure out if he was a great human being, or some kind of Peter Pan-obsessed, skin-bleaching freak. The incredible body of work Michael has left behind attests to his artistic genius, and that’s good enough for me.

And it should be good enough for you, too.

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