Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson

By now, the entire world knows of the untimely death of Michael Jackson, and it seems as though every blogger in the universe has offered their observations. This is only fitting, as Jackson's presence dominated the entertainment world as few performers ever had. Virtually all of Jackson's life was spent in the public eye, and anybody who hasn't spent the last 40 years under a rock knows his life story, from achieving superstardom at age 11, to his 80's reign as the King of Pop, to the bizarre behavior and ultimate tragedy of his later years. Perhaps the best way to remember Michael Jackson, then, is through his music, the songs, the voice, and the magnificent talent that left its mark on generations.

The Jackson 5: The first four Jackson 5 singles for Motown - "I Want You Back", "ABC", "The Love You Save", and "I'll Be There" - all topped the US charts, seemingly making matinee idols of the five young brothers from impoverished Gary, Indiana almost overnight. By the time of their breakthrough, though, the Jackson boys were already veterans of the club circuit, displaying a craft honed through long hours of rehearsals, often with father Joe sitting in a chair, belt at the ready to deliver a whipping should one of the boys miss a note. (The claim that Diana Ross "discovered" the Jackson 5 was a myth manufactured by Motown's PR staff.)

The early J5 singles were written and produced by The Corporation, headed up by Motown chief Berry Gordy, along with staff writers/producers Alphonzo Mizell, Deke Richards, and Freddie Perren. Gordy said that the brothers were the last big stars to roll off his assembly line. Those hits had one foot in the Motown assembly-line dance-pop of the 60's, but you can also hear the Jacksons straining to break out of that formula, already incorporating elements of the funk that would come to dominate 70's R&B. Michael was at the forefront of those records, possessed with a voice clear and innocent, yet also already having the nuance of the great soul singers, often sounding as though he knew of matters far beyond his years.

Jackson began recoding solo in 1972. "Ben", his first chart-topping single as a solo artist, seems especially interesting in retrospect. The empathy Jackson shows for the subject, a telepathic, manipulative rat, is downright eerie, given how the rest of Jackson's life played out.

Desiring more artistic freedom, the Jackson 5 signed with CBS Records in 1975. They enjoyed few big hits in the latter 70's, but during this period Michael's voice deepened, he developed a range of distinctive vocal mannerisms, and perfected his dance moves. In 1978 he starred as the Scarecrow in The Wiz. During the film's production he met Quincy Jones, with whom he formed a partnership that was the key to the next stage of Jackson's career.

Off The Wall (1979): Off The Wall confidently announced Michael Jackson's coming of age as a major artist. Released at the height of the disco explosion, Jackson and co-producer Quincy Jones issued a statement that they would take a back seat to no one when it came to grooves, while also including a selection of ballads that signaled his maturity.

The energetic, funky groove of the self-penned "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" (embedding not permitted) is arguably Jackson's finest hour. The song introduces Jackson's falsetto and the vocal hiccups that would become a staple of his future work. To accompany the release of the single, Jackson released an innovative video, a practice that would become another of the artist's trademarks.

The mid-tempo, romantic "Rock With You" followed "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" to the top of the charts. "Off The Wall", "Workin' Day And Night", and "Get On The Floor" are fine examples of the irresistible dance grooves featured on the LP. "Girlfriend" was written by Paul McCartney, with whom Jackson would work with periodically for the next few years. Another of the disc's finest moments is the ballad "She's Out Of My Life", in which Jackson breaks down and cries at the end of the track. Quincy Jones had Jackson record several takes, but when Jackson ended each one in tears, Jones decided that his cries were meant to be included in the final recording. Off The Wall became the first album to produce four US Top 10 singles, yet Jackson was still disappointed by this performance and was determined that his next LP would create an even bigger impact. He had yet to become the icon of later years, but as a recording artist, Jackson had already reached his peak.

Thriller (1982): Off The Wall was an excellent dance-pop LP. Thriller was a cultural event, one that ultimately overshadowed the quality of the songs themselves. With worldwide sales of 105 million and counting, Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time.

Thriller does contain its share of notable tracks. Working again with Quincy Jones, Jackson was determined to create an album on which every track could be considered as a potential hit single. He became so obsessive with rehearsing and recording that his relationship with Jones became strained. The extra work paid off, as the LP spawned an unprecedented seven hit singles, some of which displaying a darker side to Jackson's art previously unseen.

"Billie Jean", about an obsessive fan who claims that Jackson fathered her child, is a fine example of the new directions Jackson's music was taking. With Jackson's voice alternating between lust and paranoia, the song stands as one of his finest performances. "Wanna Be Startin' Something" is a propulsive dance track, while "Human Nature" is an edgy, brooding ballad. "The Girl Is Mine" was another collaboration with Paul McCartney; although musically slight, it broke ground with its treatment of interracial love. The title track featured another innovative video, along with narration by Vincent Price.

Of all the performances on Thriller, none had more cultural impact than "Beat It" (embedding not permitted). One of Jackson's goals was to record a successful rock crossover, which he achieved with the help of guitarists Eddie Van Halen and Steve Lukather of Toto. Once again, the single's success was bolstered by a creative video that pays homage to West Side Story.

It was that video that turned out to be a milepost in music history. Barriers between black and white music that had steadily fallen since the 50's were becoming restored to some extent by a new generation of radio programmers dividing the dial into tightly segregated formats. At the time, MTV seldom played any videos from black artists, as they felt they held little appeal to the demographic the channel targeted. Jackson felt that "Beat It" was as much a rock song as anything MTV had in rotation. CBS Records, frustrated with the music channel's stance toward black artists, threatened to not release new product to MTV unless they agreed to air "Beat It". MTV relented, and the video became one of the most popular in their rotation, paving the way for exposure of other black artists.

Thriller led artists to view their releases in a new light. In the early days of the LP, they were seen as a few singles held together by filler. In the 70's, inspired by The Beatles, many artists strove to create albums in which the songs were loosely united by a general theme. Jackson's approach, in which every track was seen as a potential hit, was adopted by many pop artists in subsequent years; the main advantage of this method was that a successful LP would spawn enough hits to keep it in the spotlight for two or even three years, eliminating the need to quickly return to the studio to record new material. Through the success of Thriller, Jackson showed his fellow artists a way out of the vicious cycle of recording, touring, and more recording that had ground so many acts into the dust in the 60's and 70's.

In the US, several albums have approached Thriller in overall domestic sales. Worldwide, Thriller leaves everyone else in the dust. We tend to think of "world music" as encompassing the various indigenous folk styles of the planet, but Michael Jackson, with his universal appeal and attention to craft, could make a claim to creating the real "world music". At his peak, you were as likely to see kids attempting Jackson's moonwalk in the neighborhoods of Soweto, Moscow, and Saigon as you would in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. By the mid-80's Jackson had achieved a measure of international stature unapproached by almost any other music performer.

The King Of Pop: Many claim that Jackson released some of his best work in the years after Thriller. Frankly, I paid less and less attention to him as the years passed. At times Jackson continued to release interesting music - "Man In The Mirror" is the artist at his most introspective; "Black Or White" served as a statement of purpose. Often he seemed to descend into self-parody - the title track of Bad sounds hollow, as if the person Jackson was most trying to convince of his badness was himself. At times when Jackson was exploring the dark side - "Scream" and "They Don't Care About Us" come to mind - the results seem just silly. Through it all, Jackson continued to make pop history. In 1995, "You Are Not Alone" became the first single to enter the Billboard singles chart at #1, and his halftime performance at Super Bowl XXVII forever changed the way audiences and performers regarded that event. Until the end, Jackson was capable of filling stadiums and arenas, especially abroad where the more sordid stories surrounding his life didn't have as much impact. It seemed to me, though, that Jackson spent the rest of his life trying to duplicate the success of Thriller, a success so phenomenal that he could never hope to match it.

Michael Jackson's legacy is the generic, grab-bag pop that dominates hit radio today. His masterful blending of styles created the template that has been used by everyone from Madonna to Britney Spears; from George Michael to Justin Timberlake. Most of these artists, unfortunately, lacked the understanding of modern pop that Jackson had; what seemed fresh and exciting in Jackson's hands often sounds lifeless when attempted by lesser performers. In the process, Michael Jackson brought pop music back into the world of showbiz, a mixed blessing at best. Nevertheless, he was able to achieve a rare level of celebrity; his was a face instantly recognized anywhere on the planet. For Michael Jackson, this turned out to be a mixed blessing as well.

SteveAudio offers his recollections of working with the Jackson family. Also check out this essay from Robert Christgau, who continues to be one of the world's best writers on popular music.