Last Thoughts on Michael Jackson
I've spent much of my adult life arguing for the importance and significance of pop culture. So I have no choice but to address the legacy of Michael Jackson. No, not the grotesque collapse that accelerated over the latter half of his life, other than to note that before all the surgery and skin treatments he was a very handsome young man.
I want to look at the art itself.
And as I do that I find it hard to connect to Michael Jackson's legacy outside the context of the sheer popularity. That's probably my bias toward people who were primarily writers, like Lennon and Dylan. Jackson was more like Elvis, primarily a vocal interpreter (though he did write some, where Presley only "wrote" as a way to pocket royalties). And he was a masterful interpreter with unique phrasing, so good that even one line, dropped into someone else's otherwise mediocre record, made a hit, made a connection so solid that it's an ad hook today. So much paranoia and energy in just seven words: "I always feel like (perfect pause) somebody's WAAA-ch'n me-eeeeeee..." You could smell the smoke from the paparazzi flashbulbs.
In the immediate wake of his death, much was made of Jackson's career longevity, his first number one at age 11 in 1970. But he hadn't had a major hit since 1995, so the last 14 years of his career was simply being famous for being famous. (Quick: Name one song off his last record, Invincible from 2001.) So that's 25, 26 years, similar to a lot of his peers. Springsteen, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Prince... argue about the cutoff dates of their viability as vital, major artists as you will, but all are in the ballpark. Hey, next year's the 20th anniversary of Mariah Carey's first album.
Skip ahead 1:20 or so unless you really want to see Bill Cosby's lame setup.
It seems so much longer because Jackson was so small when we met him, the little boy who danced and phrased like a pro of many years--which he already was. They weren't his words, "The Corporation" wrote them, that's the actual songwriting credit they used. Best pros on the Motown staff. But little Michael owned those words forever:
"OH! Bay-b' give me one more chaaaance..." yeah, we've all been there, but he brought you to that empty place where she used to be but wasn't anymore. This little kid made you believe, suspending all disbelief, HE'd been there, and he sounded so joyous singing it, yet with just enough anguish on the yelps and pleas, you KNEW there was no WAY she could resist coming back to him or, he made you hope just for three minutes, to you.
He was ELEVEN and it was his FIRST RECORD. His second and third both knocked the Beatles out of number one. That amazing start, the four number one hits in a row in less that a year, is the most unique music he ever created. No child sang like that before, or since, not even Stevie Wonder. And the dancing. No one could move like Michael, except maybe James Brown on a really good night at the Apollo.
But from there, Jackson was just very, very good at genres others created: Philly soul and session pop. But the real R & B trailblazer of 1979 wasn't Off The Wall, it was "Rapper's Delight" (a genre Jackson never embraced).
Rock guitar in a dance context in 1982? Yeah, "Beat It" was great. But Prince did the same thing on "Little Red Corvette" at the same time--and played the solo himself.
Breaking the race barrier at MTV? "Billie Jean" was great, but that was a marketing triumph and corporate hardball: CBS threatened to pull the rights to the label's entire roster (which would have deprived us of a lot of bad pseudo-concert lip-synching by REO Speedwagon and Journey; that was how low the bar was set pre-Jackson) if MTV wouldn't add him. And as much as "Thriller" every hour on the hour was the peak of his reign, it was also about the time we first began to wonder "hey, isn't this a little overkill?"
The legacy as I see it, as summed up in that Christmas of Thriller, is that Michael Jackson may have been the last pop music star who transcended the bounds of pop music itself, the barriers of age and class and race, in more than just a tabloid way. Well, MAYbe Madonna at moments, but she was always a polarizer, which Jackson didn't become until the end of his viable career and for reasons other than the music.
Much was made in retrospect out of the symbolism of Nirvana knocking Michael Jackson out of number one in late 1991, and indeed, Cobain was a new breed of star: a niche star. As big as he was, grandma didn't know or care who Kurt Cobain was, and Cobain wasn't trying to speak to everyone. (What does "alternative" mean when you're bigger than Michael Jackson? Cobain never figured that out, and it killed him.)
Now, the popular music market, the media market as a whole, is micro-fragmented more that it was back before "Billie Jean" and the MTV color line. It may just be my age showing, and seeing the biggest star of my era die makes my age show. Or it may just be the technological changes that make everyone with an iPod their own DJ, their own station with one listener. Perfect micromarketing. When there was only one MTV, everybody damn sure knew who Michael Jackson was. Now the TV channels have jumped from the low dozens of the early 1980s to the mid-hundreds of today, with more music channels than there were channels period.
White adult popular music has retreated to the big hair, big hats, big boobs alternate universe that's misnamed "country" but is really rock with a slight twang and a narrative song structure, or given up on staying current entirely (too old to be cool and old enough to not care) and hiding in the nostalgic netherworld of classic rock where "new" means you might hear the new Motley Crue reunion song that sounds like the ninth best track from "Girls Girls Girls."
Current hit music, if that can be defined in the download era, is of, by, and for the kids and exclusively for the kids. A quick scan of the top ten finds me familiar with only the Black Eyed Peas. My daughter tried to tell me who Lady Gaga was the other day and I had no idea. I manage to catch up a year or so behind the curve, but only because I make an effort.
But I was a top 40 nerd as a kid and I remember the radio randomly shuffling genres, the bizarre back to back segues determined by Casey Kasem's math. (As he famously complained in Negitivland's banned single "U2", Kasem had to come out of uptempo records to do dedications about dead dogs.)
As late as 1979-80, the beginning of Jackson's adult career, look at the chart toppers that surrounded "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and "Rock With You." The "phoney Beatlemania" of the Knack. The pure pop sap of Robert John's "Sad Eyes" and Tennille wanting the Captain to Do That To Her One More Time. The last hurrah of the Eagles (endless reunions don't count, just ask Mojo Nixon). Styx with proto-power ballad "Babe." Queen playing ROCKABILLY. The ahead of its time video cynicism of one hit wonder M and "Pop Musik." Herb freakin' Alpert. And weirdest of all, ultimate album act Pink Floyd with a children's choir and a number one hit.
All that stuff was on the radio and the charts next to each other. Maybe you couldn't relate to every single record, maybe your parents couldn't relate to every single record, but it was all in the same approximate universe.
And that was the world where Michael Jackson ruled, providing brief We Are The World cultural unity in a world that's gone.