REFLECTIONS ON THE KING OF POP
At 6:53 P.M. on Thursday, June 25, 2009, I was returning a phone call from my mom. I had just gotten out of the car, and was walking to a nearby restaurant to pick up dinner. But I stopped still within a matter of seconds. The first words on the other end of the line were “Did you hear about Michael Jackson?” Nine times out of ten, when someone puts a question to me like that --particularly when it concerns a celebrity, my first thought is, “Oh no, did he die?” And in the case of The King of Pop, I instantly started to think of all of the physical and psychological problems he had endured over the last two decades. Still, I told myself, “No, I think he’s okay.” After all, he had just recently announced a big round of comeback concerts, with rehearsals underway.
Along with millions of other fans around the globe, though, I was quickly dealt what felt like a huge blow. In fact, Michael had passed away after suffering cardiac arrest, it was reported, in spite of doctors8 0 efforts to resuscitate him.
-- There is a void. -- There’s no other way to express the feeling.
The enormous impact that MJ has made on millions of people of all ages, from virtually every locale on Earth, from all walks of life, is the kind of far-reaching phenomenon that only happens once in a generation - if that often. The Gloved One not only broke records with seemingly infinite record sales and out-of-this world concerts attended by his legions of followers. He broke stereotypes. Walls. Rules. Racial barriers. Poverty lines. The list goes on...but most importantly, Michael broke an insurmountable amount of musical ground.
When America at large was introduced to The Jackson 5 in 1969 by way of the brothers’ first single for Motown, “I Want You Back,” 11-year-old Michael’s impressively soulful, confident lead vocal performance not only melted the hearts of the masses of pre-teen girls whom Motown was targeting. His standout performance struck a chord with children, teenagers, and adults alike, both female and male, and before you could blink, J5 fever was spreading like wildfire internationally. “ABC,” “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Mama’s Pearl” - within two years, Michael and family racked up over 25 million units in record sales, a slew of awards, and their own Saturday-morning cartoon series.
While riding high on J5’s success, Michael embarked on his first solo efforts in 1972 with the albums Got to Be There and Ben, both spawning huge pop and R&B hits with their respective titletracks, in addition to “Rockin’ Robin” and “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” The group continued to rack up top-5 R&B hits - including the smash crossover, “Dancing Machine” - over the next few years, while they kept busy with prolific album releases, TV appearances, and regular touring.
Not given the opportunity to place their own compositions or play their own instruments on their albums, Michael and his brothers were growing dissatisfied with Motown. By 1975, they had gotten out of their contract with the legendary label and moved over to CBS Records - with a couple of changes. Brother Jermaine had married into the Motown “family” and decided to stay on board there as a solo artist, and was now replaced by younger brother Randy; and for l egal reasons, the group from this point on would simply be known as “The Jacksons.” However, this new deal afforded them the creative control they desired, not to mention gave them substantially higher royalties from their recordings, as well as the opportunity to branch out into new media territory. Following the release of their self-titled album for CBS’s Philadelphia International subsidiary in 1976, they signed on to star in their own weekly television variety series - the first black performers to do so.
Not only did The Jacksons evolve their musical identity as a group after landing at Epic; but Michael began taking his own entertainment goals to an entirely new level. He made the leap to the silver screen as Scarecrow in The Wiz, and released his first post-Motown solo album, 1979’s Off the Wall. So began the magic his legend is made of. Selling more than 20 million copies worldwide, the album began the endless string of records Mike would break. In this case, he scored four top-10 hits from the same album. But that was simply the tip of the iceberg. What would follow three years later would shatter any previous records (and most future ones). With 1982’s gargantuan Thriller, Michael not only achieved the singular feat of worldwide best-selling album of=2 0all-time; but he also garnered seven top-10 pop-hits, won eight Grammy awards, and eight American Music Awards. Not as obviously -- but perhaps even more monumentally, he paved the way for regular airtime of black artists on MTV. “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller” all became staples of the network -- so much that the then still-young channel funded a documentary on the making of the “Thriller” video. And then, of course, there was the slew of merchandise: MJ dolls, costumes, colorforms, posters, pennants, notebooks -- the whole shebang!
Although this writer can’t bear the scariness of the “Thriller” video to this day, there’s no mistaking its impact since day one. Many Gen X’ers will recall a time when the song was played on a field trip to the planetarium, or blasted as part of an elementary school P.E. dance class. It even showed up in pre-kindergarten classrooms. “Thriller” was everywhere!
The huge impact of Thriller is what made the years-long wait for MJ’s next album tolerable -- and a worthy one! With 1987’s Bad, he again churned out an astonishing seven smash singles all over the world. He continued to up the ante of his energy-defying dance routines with his videos; and he made it into the Guinness Book of World Records when his worldwide Bad tour sold out seven shows at Wembley Stadium in London.
Although comments had been made about Michael’s changing appearance as far back as his 1983 appearance on Motown 25, it was during the “Bad” era that talk really began to circulate. With seemingly lighter skin and a smaller nose, people wondered if Mike was trying to make himself look whiter. Needless to say, this became a topic of public obsession for years to come; but it didn’t stop the one-man record-breaking force from continuing to churn out more classic recordings and awe-inspiring concert tours. The hits just kept on coming: “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Dirty Diana” from the Bad album; “Black or White,” “Will You Be There,” and “In the Closet” from the Dangerous album -- to name a few. While personal affairs would ultimately interfere with the completion of the 1993 Dangerous tour, the 1996-97 HIStory tour ran relatively unscathed by media battles, and became the biggest-selling tour of his career. The HIStory tour wasn’t necessarily the pinnacle of Michael’s career; but, in a sense, it was his last great peak. He had risen above suspect allegations of child molestation, and come out strong by touring for over a year -- with performances covering five continents. What would follow over the next ten years, unfortunately, would be an ongoing chain of legal and financial problems and negative (and often invasive) media scrutiny. He did, of course, release one more album, 2001’s Invincible. Critical response was notably mixed; and sales were relatively disappointing. However, the single, “You Rock My World” became the King’s last top-10 pop hit in the U.S. and an undeniable staple of his catalog.
While Michael’s later years may have been a dry spell for recordings and performances, his impact on the charts remained undeniable. As the National Post pointed out in an article published the day after his passing, the scope of mega-selling artists influenced by MJ’s prowess ranges from young, dance-driven acts such as Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown to time-tested musicians and performers like Terence Trent D’Arby and Whitney Houston. After years being visibly haunted by personal demons, professional fiascos, and public ridicule, The Gloved One seemed to be getting his strength back up in early 2009. He announced a series of comeback concerts to take place i n London during the summer. He made a rare official public appearance, looking healthier than he had in recent times; and rehearsals were underway. But as is often the case, what was going on behind the scenes was unclear.
In spite of the health problems we’d watched Michael endure these last few years, most of us were not prepared for his untimely death. It just goes to show how powerful the art of a masterful performer can really be. The mediums that Michael excelled in made him seem immortal -- so much that maybe, we thought, Michael could weather all of his ailments and rise above with his truly divine, electrifying body of work and showmanship.
But his early departure from this Earth doesn’t diminish any of that power. No one else can claim the spot that he paved for himself through hard work, dedication, and perseverance: a spot of revelry marked by a vocal style that was all at once soulful, innocent, and far-reaching; moves that transcended any notions of physical limitations; and music that innately connected the dots between genres, cultures, and nations. Michael, we love you always...
Justin M. Kantor is a freelance journalist and vocalist based in Virginia. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
MICHAEL JACKSON: AN APPRECIATION OF HIS TALENT
Anyone who has reason to doubt Michael Jackson’s cultural importance in the wake of his untimely death from cardiac arrest on June 25th, take note: entertainment website TMZ.com reported that so many people around the world logged online Friday afternoon to get updates about the pop superstar’s status that the Internet itself nearly buckled.
Indiana-born Jackson had his first #1 hit in 1969 at eleven years old. No young singer ever sang, or has ever sung to this day, the way Michael Jackson sang on record. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was the most advanced popular singer of his age in the history of recorded music. His untrained tenor was uncanny. By all rights, he shouldn’t have had as much vocal authority as he did at such a young age. Had Jackson sounded mature by simply being gruff or husky, he would have remained a precocious novelty. But his tones were full-bodied clarion calls; his pitch was immaculate, and his phrasing impeccable. He had a fluid lyricism and plenty of range, and he could find emotional nuance in challenging pop-soul material. Listen, for instance, to the way he skillfully maneuvers those tricky, Bacharach-esque harmonics on 1971’s “Got to Be There.”
Though he was capable of gritty soul, Jackson was more Diana than Gladys, more Dionne than Aretha. His muted, contained fervor, honed on the amateur night circuit rather than in the Pentecostal church, allowed him to handle precious ballads like 1970’s “I’ll Be There” with equal parts aplomb and sensitivity. It’s challenging for any singer to deliver authentic emotion without resorting to melisma or other vocal crutches. Singing the original melody as written while also conveying the emotional subtext behind a lyric requires great interpretive skill. Moving between tenor and falsetto, Jackson was a fantastic song essayist. Saccharine “Ben” and “Maybe Tomorrow” became sentimental opuses under Jackson’s feathery touch. Aching slow jams like 1979’s “I Can’t Help It” and 1982’s “The Lady in My Life” were templates for 1990s neo-soul. It’s easy to forget how minimalist a balladeer Jackson was until you hear other singers – even skilled ones - attempt to cover his songs and fall flat: Cassandra Wilson’s live cover of 1993 weeper “Gone Too Soon” comes to mind.
Jackson preserved his lithe tenor into adulthood. Critics claim he was trying to sound younger as he got older. But Jackson’s voice became more feminine as he got older. He and Patti Austin were often mistaken for each other on the crediting of Quincy Jones tracks. And it took me months before I realized that Jackson had a female duet partner, Siedah Garrett, on 1987’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” given their indistinguishable vocal registers and timbres. If Jackson deliberately cultivated vocal femininity, he could also sound aggressive, and even carnal, as on the opening of 1982’s explosive “P.Y.T.”
Jackson often draws comparison to Sammy Davis Jr.: both were preternaturally gifted pre-teens hawking song-and-dance routines. Other influences included Jackie Wilson and James Brown, dynamos for whom singing and dancing emerge from the same bodily impulse. Jackson’s trademark theatrical dancing bore traces of Jack Cole’s modernist angularity, The Nicholas Brothers’ sinewy virtuosity, Gene Kelly’s balletic grace and Fred Astaire’s rhythmic flow. By the early 70s Jackson had incorporated into his repertoire West Coast popping and locking; I wonder if he witnessed those moves firsthand when the family migrated to Los Angeles after signing with Motown.
But Jackson didn’t simply model his dancing after others. He somehow emulsified all his his influences and created his own idiosyncratic movement vocabulary. Latter-day song and dance stars like Justin Timberlake, Usher, Chris Brown and Neo have skillfully followed in Jackson’s footsteps. But they often do so too literally. While I always felt Jackson had to dance out of the necessity of sheer ecstatic release, his younger counterparts, happy to imitate their idol, have yet to find their own original moves. Nor have any of them found a real sense of personal abandon in dance. It’s been said that Jackson did not pick up choreography easily (nor did Gene Kelly for that matter). But when he danced, he did so with fierceness, with creative risk. It was as if his life depended on it.
By the end of 1969, The Supremes had unraveled. Diana Ross’s solo career was set to launch. Motown CEO Berry Gordy identified his next entrepreneurial fixation in Jackson and his four talented brothers. To begin the artist development process, Gordy ratcheted up the funk missing from the brothers’ 1967 efforts on local Gary record label Steeltown. He concocted a production & songwriting dream team he cheekily called The Corporation (Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, Deke Richards and Gordy himself). Their job, drawing heavily on Frankie Lymon and probably the Cowsills, was to handcraft for The Jackson Five G-rated pop tunes like “I Want You Back”. Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five, their 1969 debut, was released a week before Christmas and only 12 days after the Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert put a bottlecap on ‘60s optimism. The Jackson Five’s day-glo ditties were miles away from the darker, socially conscious soul of producers like Norman Whitfield and Curtis Mayfield. But they were still more sophisticated than they’re given credit for under the misleading banner “bubblegum soul”. I can’t recall the Osmonds ever attempting anything half as transcendent or effervescent as “The Love You Save”.
Matriarch Katherine sewed gaudy costumes for her sons, drawing liberally from the look of Sly’s pre-Riot Bay Area boho hippie couture. Stage Dad Joe, projecting his failed musical ambitions on his boys, forced them to rehearse using methods that probably contravened child labor and human rights laws. And over at the label, Gordy had set in motion an unstoppable juggernaut of early branding, licensing the J5 image to anyone who would shell out green bucks. These collective efforts resulted in mass female hysteria not seen since Beatlemania. In 1970, unassuming “A.B.C” was so immensely popular that it knocked the Beatles’ epochal “Let it Be” off the top chart spot. The Jackson Five scored three number one singles before they ever even made a live appearance. And in 1971, when Cynthia Horner jumpstarted her black teen magazine Right On!, it’s been reported that every single cover for the first two years was devoted to a Jackson.
The Jacksons marketed themselves as pop culture’s ultimate functional nuclear family. Their seemingly unimpeachable vision of black kinship as upwardly mobility flew in the face of The Moynihan Report and inner city turmoil that defined the 1970s. The Jacksons helped spawn TV’s insufferable white Partridge Family and, years later, TV’s black middle-class Huxtables. Around 1987, a new cynicism crept in, and dysfunctional families became the representational norm. Satires like The Simpsons and Married with Children ruled. By the time 1989 album 2300 Jackson Street flopped, The Jacksons had already begun rebranding themselves as the ultimate dysfunctional family. In 1991, brother Jermaine enlisted L.A. and Babyface to produce “Word to the Badd!,” a vitriolic criticism of Michael that he refused to retract; eighteen years later, it would be Jermaine who would give the first live press conference to confirm his brother’s death.
Michael Jackson’s talents as a songwriter and producer wouldn’t come to light until he left Motown in 1975. He found a degree of artistic freedom several records into his tenure with CBS Records: “This Place Hotel” from The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph remains a personal favorite. But Jackson truly reached creative nirvana on 1979’s Off the Wall, his fifth studio album, by collaborating with musical journeyman Quincy Jones. Jones’s production contributions to Jackson’s albums were sometimes exaggerated. But he did help Jackson develop the musical DNA that would define each of his successive albums. Deep-pocket grooves with polyrhythmic percussion (“Workin’ Day and Night”.) Wistful ballads (“She’s Out of My Life.”) Pop hooks that sear into your cerebellum (“Off the Wall)”). Jazzy chord progressions (“I Can’t Help It”). Swirling strings (Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”). State-of-the-art synthesizers (“Get on the Floor”). Michael’s vocal ticks, squeals, and yelps (inserted wherever possible). Savvy songwriters like Heatwave’s Rod Temperton (“Rock with You”) brought their A-game, and genius sidemen from George Duke to Greg Phillingaines delivered brilliant rhythm tracks. With Off the Wall, Jackson finally found a way to capture the visceral thrill of his live concerts on record.
Then, the game seriously changed.
Drawing on the monumental success of the 1979 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 1982’s Thriller redefined the pop album as a blockbuster mega-spectacle. It did for music what Jaws and Star Wars did for film, turning an art form into an event. Throughout his career Michael Jackson had an aesthetic affinity for all things spectacular. I’d call him a spectacularist, if that were a legitimate word. He was the thriller he sang about; he wanted to leave you constantly enthralled by every aspect of the artistic experience. The music was no exception. Each song on Thriller was a self-contained, high concept deliberately directed toward to a desired demographic. Rockers like Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen made cameos; Jackson embraced Quiet Storm on “The Lady in My Life;” and the Toto-esque “Human Nature” delivered MOR soft rock. Record label Epic, under Walter Yetnikoff’s maniacal direction (or lack thereof), poured money into getting the word out about the album, leaving no marketing or promotional tool untried, including the then emerging music video format.
Jackson always harbored film star ambitions but they would never materialize (save for his featured performance in Sidney Lumet’s 1978 The Wiz and years later, a passing cameo in Men in Black II.) But Jackson transferred his celluloid ambitions into the music video arena, grabbing the baton from UK innovators Godley and Crème and completely revolutionizing the artform. With Thriller he turned video into mega-spectacle. At first, MTV refused to play Jackson’s videos, but as his popularity became undeniable the network ultimately had to swallow crow, as it were. Video directors Jon Landis and Bob Giraldi and others deserve a good deal of the credit for the artistic successes of these works, but one of the unsung heroes in Jackson’s meteoric rise was Michael Peters, the late Dreamgirls choreographer, whose iconic moves in videos like “Beat It” and “Thriller” became a definitive part of Jackson’s iconography. In 2007, when the surreal YouTube clip of orange-cloaked inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Phillippines restaging Peters’ moves from the "Thriller" video became one of the top pass-around Internet videos, it served as a reminder of how deep Jackson’s presence had permeated global culture in the last 30 years.
In the mid 80s, as Thriller’s sales skyrocketed and Grammys piled up, Jackson emerged as the most famous person on earth, instantly recognizable through his eccentric iconography: aviator sunglasses, royal jackets with epaulets, bleached white socks, and a single jewel-encrusted glove. Thriller exploded the concept of pop stardom, what was possible in the construction and maintenance of global celebrity. It also exploded the concept of racial crossover. In the edited collection Freakery, David Yuan mentions how Jackson surpassing Elvis’ sales records was as seminal a moment in black American history as previous breakthroughs by Joe Louis in boxing and Jackie Robinson in baseball. Long before Obama, Jackson raised the bar for black exceptionalism. He transformed how people around the world perceived blacks, and just as importantly, how black people began to perceive themselves.
I can vividly recall seeing Jackson perform the moonwalk on Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV Special when it first aired in 1983. Though Jackson did not invent the move, that breathtaking moment, in the context of his larger performance, started to change my entire sense of self. Back in the day, we did not just want to be like Michael, we wanted to be Michael. We practiced moonwalking and kick-pushing our legs in our bedrooms. We tried to jheri-curl our hair or at least make it look as slick and wet as his had become. We cut the fingers off our gloves in the effort to look cool. Moving and singing with total energy, total freedom, absolute strength, and aesthetic openness, Michael Jackson seemed to be a divine revelation made manifest here on Earth. Though it now seems impossible to believe, Jackson seemed, in that cultural moment, to become the instantiation of total artistic and human perfection. It was an impossible standard to uphold.
Off the Wall and Thriller remain the greatest pop soul albums ever released. Some find Thriller too calculated and too shlocky, and it is. But I’ve always looked at it as a lovingly crafted, detail-obsessed, musically-rich work of authentic rhythm and blues. Not to mention, there are few albums more wildly fun and eminently danceable (“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” still electrifies.)
In pop music, nobody has ever duplicated the commercial or artistic success of those two successive albums. For this reason, Jackson’s death might be a symbol of the end of the recorded music era as we know it. At a time in which the Internet and peer-to-peer sharing programs have made it difficult for music aspirants to sustain careers selling records, it is unlikely that anyone will ever again top Thriller’s enormous fifty million plus sales feat.
As the 1980s wore on, Jackson could not compete with hip-hop’s street cred demands. But he found ways to match its machismo by amplifying his own sexual aggression. He began incessant crotch-grabbing and Tourette’s-like yelps, directed, it seems, at no one but himself. Bad, the 1988 follow-up to Thriller, introduced persecution and paranoia themes, like on guitar-heavy “Dirty Diana” and CD-only track “Leave Me Alone”. Critics like to say that Jackson’s career precipitously declined after Thriller, but I wonder if they remember Bad was some serious mega-spectacle itself. Plus, it had five number one singles and sold more than thirty million copies – hardly a paltry sum by any standard. Except, perhaps, Jackson’s own.
I get the sense when some critics bemoan Michael’s post-Thriller work, they really haven’t listened to much of it very closely. I always considered Bad, as well as 1991 Dangerous and even 1995 greatest-hits-plus-more double album HIStory to be superb albums, characterized by the same care and attention to musical detail as Michael Jackson’s earlier solo efforts. Maybe you couldn’t stomach Bad’s silly title track, but you could certainly acknowledge the synth jazz-funk of “Another Part of Me” (Anita Baker even covered it in her live shows). Maybe you couldn’t stomach Dangerous’ sentimental “Will You Be There,” but you could certainly acknowledge sinuous groove masterpieces like “Remember the Time,” “Jam,” and “Keep it in the Closet.” Jackson’s last studio release, 2001’s Invincible could summon neither the mega-spectacle, nor the artistic brilliance, of earlier releases. But it still has its share of prizes, like sleek lead single “You Rock My World and tremblingly romantic “Butterflies.”
At the time of his death, Jackson had spent nearly 42 years making records; that’s a staggering sum considering he was only 50 years old. Jackson made plenty of artistic missteps on the way (especially 1997’s “Blood on the Dancefloor;” the remixes are off the hook, though) and he was clearly unable to reinvent his brand in ways that would keep him fresh in the commercial marketplace. But Jackson at his worst is still in better shape than much of what is currently on the radio. Propulsive “Sunset Driver,” an unreleased track originally recorded for 1979’s Off the Wall and available on 2004 box set Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection, stands superior to much of the musicianship in pop today. And gorgeous Babyface-penned ballad, “On the Line,” little known as the opening credit track from Spike Lee’s 1996 Get on the Bus, stands among Jackson’s best work.
If Michael Jackson redefined pop music as mega-spectacle, he also redefined the surreal weirdness of celebrity culture. What started off as simple eccentricity in the early 80s – plastic surgery touch-ups, carrying Bubbles the chimp on his arm to events, carrying Emmanuel Lewis on his arm as if he were Bubbles! – soon devolved into full-blown horror. Jackson began to transform in ways that you could neither turn away from nor condone. He drastically lightened his complexion and surgically altered his facial features in ways that looked grotesque, not to mention racially problematic. He seemed to become the kind of monster he had once pretended to be in videos.
The reasons he effected this transmogrification are complex, psychological, and psychosocial. Jackson spent his life in abject fear of being perceived as normal and ordinary. He was, according to reports, by turns humble and megalomaniacal. He surrounded himself with aging legendary celebrity friends like Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck and claimed in interviews that the only artist he wanted to collaborate with was Debussy, who died in 1918. Jackson wanted to be among the greatest of all legends, and he wanted you to know of his elite status. Like a black Willy Loman, he also lived in fear of becoming irrelevant. He had never known a life in which he wasn’t universally relevant. By publicizing his abnormality, whether real or manufactured, Jackson could kill two birds with one stone: he could remain both talked about, and aloof, different than the everyman.
During his tenure at Motown, Jackson witnessed how to manufacture buzz through falsehood. To launch the Jackson Five in 1969, Berry Gordy had cooked up the white lie that label superstar Diana Ross (rather than Gladys Knight or Bobby Taylor or Suzanne dePasse) had discovered the Jackson Five. Even though the public largely knew it was not true, Jackson was forced to repeat this blatant lie over and over in interviews, until he himself probably believed it, or at least saw its effectiveness, particularly when the group’s success did materialize. The lies and manufactured shams continued in the 80s and beyond as his solo career exploded. Jackson soon realized he could become a tabloid fixture by leaking manufactured stories to the press. We learned that he liked to sleep in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber - but who exactly took that picture? We learned that he wanted to buy The Elephant Man’s bones – for what purpose, exactly? Jackson managed to turn himself into the tabloid junkie fodder he purported to despise on songs like “Leave Me Alone” and “Tabloid Junkie”. Eventually the public could no longer tell what was real and false. Even Jackson’s short-lived marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, which possibly might have had a genuine impulse in it, appeared to be nothing more than a desperate publicity stunt to prove his heterosexuality in the face of child molestation allegations.
Jackson also feared, to his core, being abjectly lonely. His self-esteem had long evaporated, likely the result of years of verbal and physical abuse from his father and rumored sexual abuse from older men. Jackson desperately wanted to be liked and understood. But being understood meant being accessible. Being accessible in turn meant being seen as normal, so that was not an option. Jackson had entrepreneurial talent: he bought the lucrative Beatles catalog in the 1980s and launched MJJ Records in the 1990s, a Sony imprint in which he made some bold creative choices. But Jackson wanted people to perceive him as an eccentric, tragic billionaire like Howard Hughes (with whom he was fascinated), so he lived beyond his means and ended up in a mountain of bad business decisions and staggering debt.
Over time, physical ailment, prescription drug use, endless court cases and a revolving cast of shady characters compounded Jackson’s neuroses and self-destructive behavior. He found friends, and possibly lovers, in children, since he claimed they came to him with no agenda - but he was a fool to think their parents wouldn’t. To stave off depression, Jackson surrounded himself with the most expensive of spiritual advisors, like Deepak Chopra. He desperately searched for the spiritual life that he had once known as Jehovah’s Witness, even reportedly joining Islam in his last years. But Jackson never again found his center.
Jon Pareles notes in his New York Times obit that Jackson had internalized Motown’s crossover aesthetic and upward mobility imperatives. It was clear that Jackson feared the idea of being pigeonholed - not just in music, but in life. He wanted to appeal to everyone but to also remain elusive. So, throughout his career, he wedged himself in spaces of ambivalence. He did not want to look black or white. He did not want to look male or female. Though he was twice married, it was hard to tell if he was straight or queer or something else altogether. Jackson had become freakishly androgynous, and yet, he continued to crave mainstream success and public acceptance.
In 1985, in a prophetic essay in Playboy magazine, James Baldwin discussed the ‘problem’ of androgynous singers like Boy George and Michael Jackson. Baldwin predicted that Jackson’s bold pursuit of mainstream androgyny would be his undoing. He said: “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”
Because of the way Jackson destabilized our understanding of race, gender, and sexuality as fixed categories, he became the figure that many of us academics cut our teeth on as cultural critics. I published academic articles about him, I taught his albums in my classes at NYU, and I spoke about him on panels, including a Yale conference on Jackson’s life and work in 2004. Jackson emerged as a major figure in cultural studies because at the end of the day he was a frustrating, fascinating contradiction of a human being. Like the famous 1988 Jeff Koons sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, in which the star and his chimp are rendered in cold white ceramic, the superstar became a frozen vessel onto which you could project your hopes, fears, desires, your anger and your delight.
Jackson’s racial and sexual androgyny project might have succeeded had he aimed at becoming either/or. Operating in a trans third space, Jackson might have strategically challenged our ideas about stereotypes as he did on 1991’s trite but heartfelt “Black or White” from Dangerous. Jackson could have ridiculed the notion of false opposites, without becoming ripped apart by them. But Jackson didn’t want to be either/or. He wanted to be neither/nor, which is a very different thing. Jackson didn’t want to be black or white; he wanted to be some other thing that nobody could recognize, some other category that kept him unique and totally different from everyone else – and he had the money and the wherewithal to effect those changes on his body to make it a reality.
In the end, wanting to be neither/nor means you can end up being nothing to anybody, and that is the recipe for an alienated, lonely life. No pop star in history, with the exception of Madonna, has ever been so open or willing to completely reinvent themselves over the course of their career in the public eye. But Madonna managed to commit to her identity reinventions without ever fully inhabiting any one for any length of time. She also seemed to understand that at the end of the day, some semblance of normalcy is desirable. Jackson did not. That Jackson used his body, not always his art, as a canvas to effect his transformation is what is ultimately so disturbing and fascinating about his career.
Still, it’s comforting that someone as lonely as Michael Jackson brought together so many people through his work. One aspect that is often overlooked in American television coverage of his death but frequently mentioned in other countries where Jackson’s stardom never dropped off the radar is his long legacy of humanitarian and charitable work. Perhaps only Bono has bested Michael Jackson’s charitable contributions in pop. I can recall in 1991 being revolted by Jackson’s “Heal the World,” an inspirational treaclefest that seemed wildly out of step with gangsta, grunge and bleak chic aesthetics that dominated the airwaves. Jackson’s earnesty borded on serious naiveté.
But in retrospect, it’s clear that throughout his career Michael Jackson held steadfast to a vision of one love-planetary humanism on par with the most heartfelt sentimentalists our time. Like Princess Diana (she was also a controversial figure,) Jackson really did inspire people to believe that they could change the world, and that is not something to scoff at nor take lightly. Michael Jackson used art to teach many of us how to care very deeply for other people. As a child, I can recall crying in my room as a child listening to 1987’s “Man in the Mirror,” so powerful was his performance of Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett’s vision for personal transformation and global communion. I can recall how moved I was by the music video in which Jackson takes a backseat to scenes of world conflict, not even appearing until a brief glimpse at the end. I was struck by his ability to take himself out of the equation in the service of a greater social cause. I suspect there are people all over the world who could share their stories of how that particular song moved them.
One Michael Jackson song stands out for me. 1993’s “Gone Too Soon,” produced by Jackson and written by Larry Grossman and Buzz Kohan, was dedicated to late Indiana AIDS patient Ryan White, a young student who had been kicked of his school because he carried the virus. One can never choose to forget how much vitriolic hate was spewed against AIDS patients at the height of the virus’ transmission. Jackson released his tribute at a time in the 1990s when I can’t recall many if any hip-hop artists willing to talk about or discuss AIDS publicly. “Gone Too Soon” may have been schmaltzy, but it was authentic, it was tender and terribly moving, a genuine expression of Jackson’s passion and care for a young person who had been victimized. As Carl Wilson discusses in his superb book on Celine Dion: Let’s Talk About Love, we need to rethink the politics of schmaltz, particularly in the way it generates community through emotional expression.
If the punditry on CNN in the wake of his death is any indication, controversy is how many will remember Michael Jackson. He left this earth with numerous legal and financial entanglements that will keep his name in the press for some time. He may have also left us with more questions than answers.
I often wonder if the three children he raised, none of whom seem to look anything like him, are his real biological children. And yet, by all accounts to date, he was an excellent father.
I have always wondered about his skin lightening, which he chalked up on his 1993 Oprah appearance to the disease vitiligo, which can leave the skin with patches of depleted melanin. Many did not and do not believe that he had the disease, given this country’s racist history in which black people have used bleaching creams to change their complexions. It is possible that Jackson did have vitiligo and used bleaching creams on his skin to create a more uniform complexion. But, I have always wondered why he did he not darken his skin to create a uniform complexion, rather than lighten it. In the end, I’m more likely to believe that Jackson really did have vitiligo and he also decided to bleach his skin out of self-hatred. He was just that complicated. Unless a tell-all diary emerges, the contradictions with which Jackson lived may keep us guessing about him for years.
In the past few days, I have been questioning if the passing of any other public figure alive could elicit the seismic global response that we have seen in the aftermath Jackson’s death. A president, a worldwide spiritual leader, perhaps? Wherever he is, Jackson must be smiling to think that he ended up in such rarified company.
-- Jason King, www.jasonkingonline.com
Some people are born entertainers, some people are great entertainers, some people are followers of music whilst others make the path and are pioneers - I would just like to say Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer’…This was a 25 year old Michael Jackson paying tribute to his hero at the 1984 Grammys – Jackson, at the peak of his powers collected a staggering 8 awards that night for his record breaking ‘Thriller’ album.
‘Thriller’ became the quintessential pop album of the eighties while Michael Jackson was without question the biggest act in entertainment – the fist global black icon who’s carefully constructed image dominated popular music culture with such breathtaking arrogance. His image, of course, would come back to haunt him in later years but for now the world outside his window just couldn’t get enough of Michael’s accessible brand of cutting edge music and ground breaking videos beautifully complimented by his apparent child like innocence. Michael Jackson rose from a generation where fame was of a reflection of an artist’s talent unlike today’s world of fame by association or image.
Just like the Beatles and Elvis Presley before them Michael Jackson’s music touched every corner of the globe and became a soundtrack to people’s lives. For the best part of 40 years Michael Jackson represented the good, the bad and downright obscene world of a celebrity obsessed culture glorified by the media and consumed all to readily by the public.
Michael Joseph Jackson was, as we know, born on 29th August 1958 in the northern industrial town of Gary, Indiana – the seventh of nine children by crane-operator father Joe & stay at home mother Katherine. By the age of seven Michael had already demonstrated such an extraordinary vocal prowess he displaced older brother Jermaine as lead singer of the Jackson brothers and for the next twenty five years this mercurial child prodigy became the group’s focal point.
The early years for the Jackson family consisted of an endless round of state wide talent contests followed by hours of relentless rehearsal directed by father Joe, a strict disciplinarian.
At this point in time the Jackson repertoire consisted of popular R&B covers by cross over artists such as Sam Cooke & The Temptations but Michael had already started to seek out grittier grooves. The first record he ever brought was ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ and Sam & Dave’s ‘Hold on I’m Coming’ was added to their set list at the young man’s insistence.
In the autumn of 1968 everything changed for the Jackson family when after a brief flirtation with Steel-Town Records the talented brothers successfully auditioned for legendary Motown Records boss Berry Gordy and the rest as they say was history – 18 months & four, million selling number one singles later, Michael Jackson was thrust on the cover of Rolling Stone and acclaimed the most famous 12 year old on the planet.
The Jackson brothers were now ‘The Jackson 5’ and perhaps the last truly great Motown act to cross-over to mainstream America whilst upholding the label's finest traditions of infectious, bubble-gum black pop cleverly orchestrated by Michael’s souring vocals and boundless energy.
The Jackson 5 were lorded by Motown as the ‘sound of young America’ although significantly not the ‘face of young America’ it may sound cynical but as popular as Michael & his brothers clearly were they were still ‘black Americans’ and exclusive access to the teenage bedroom walls of ‘white America’ was still the preserve of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond – a situation which Michael Jackson would dramatically turn on its head ten years later.
There was no doubt that by the time Michael reached his 18th birthday he’d begun to tire of the Motown treadmill and the lack of artistic control afforded to him and his brothers. Berry Gordy could never quite understand why the Jackson family would dare to even question the carefully laid plans and marketing strategy he had used to such effect for the best part of six years but for Michael the reasons were obvious. If The Jackson 5 stayed at Motown they were on a one-way ticket to Vegas and he wanted more, much more.
As far as Michael Jackson was concerned this was only the beginning, the stage was his life, performing was what drove him to spend hour after hour, day after day working at his craft, striving for perfection. He and his brothers were yet to reach their creative pinnacle.
The acrimonious split with Motown in 1975 and new found alliance with Epic Records (A.K.A. CBS Records and then Sony Music) a year later finally gave Michael and his sibblings the creative freedom they craved. Now minus Jermaine (who had stayed on at Motown) ‘The Jacksons’ as they were now known became a real tour-de-force. Their self-penned & produced ‘Destiny’ & ‘Triumph’ albums both went platinum and their critically acclaimed, Earth, Wind & Fire inspired live shows were a true spectacles era.
At 21 years of age Michael Jackson then made the inspired decision to recruit 45-year old jazz maestro Quincy Jones to produce his first proper solo album. Their first collaboration was the majestic ‘Off the Wall’, a masterpiece in modern music making still regarded by many as the definitive Michael Jackson recording.
Quincy Jones had brought the best out of Michael Jackson in a way no producer had ever done before or since. We can only thank God these two kindred spirits met each other when they did because for the next 10 years they created a library of music that will be remembered for several lifetimes and appreciated the world over.
Quincy Jones’ production skills on ‘Off The Wall’, ‘Thriller’ & ‘Bad’ were peerless – on each & every track his carefully laid foundations provided the perfect catalyst for Michael Jackson’s brilliant, captivating vocal performance.
Just like Lennon & McCartney, they were completely in sync with each other, they knew each others strengths & weaknesses, they argued constantly, they fought over new material and new technology, they went days without even speaking to each other but ultimately they delivered. ‘Off the Wall’ sold 17 million copies and became the biggest selling album ever by a black artist.
‘Thriller’ of course became the biggest selling album of all time thanks largely to three ground-breaking music videos and Michael Jackson’s epochal ‘Motown 25 Performance’ where he tipped his hat to James Brown & Jackie Wilson during a stunning performance of ‘Billie Jean’ which left the star-studded audience and 25 million watching Americans spellbound.
Once again Michael Jackson’s desire to push the boundaries and stay one step ahead of his peers had won the day and now he stood supreme as the greatest entertainer in the world, nobody could touch him.
This astronomical success, global fame and level of uncontrolled hysteria, not seen since The Beatles heyday, had made Michael Jackson the brightest star in the showbiz galaxy but with this seemingly endless euphoria came an even bigger problem, his private life.
Jackson had now been famous since he was 11 largely at the expense of his childhood. He had a brutal father who beat him mercilessly on occasions and clearly had issues with his own sexuality. Living his life off stage became increasingly difficult.
Away from the glare of the camera demons surfaced that would stay with the complex performer until the day he died – by now Jackson had complete control over his own career and corrupted by the power of celebrity answered to no-one. His blind pursuit of ‘the perfect image’ meant frequent trips to a Los Angeles plastic surgeon, a compulsive disorder developed which remained unchecked despite public alarm and the offense black Americans took at his disappearing negro features in favour of a finely chiselled European look. A devastating sense of betrayal had alienated Jackson from large sections of his own African-American community. Although he had given more money to black charities than any other artist in history surely he only had himself to blame?
By the time Michael Jackson’s lawyers negotiated an out of court settlement with Jordy Chandler in 1994 over child abuse allegations his inner demons had spiralled out of control and his career was in free fall. Addictions to pain killing drugs, failing health and another humiliating court case in 2005 all conspired to reduce the once ‘King of Pop’ to public freak-show. Michael Jackson’s demise was simply heartbreaking to watch whether it be for his friends, his family who still loved him or his legions of fans.
On 25th June 2009 Michael Jackson’s heart stopped beating aged just Fifty. Efforts to revive him were as futile as the efforts to revive his career which lay in ruins. Jackson had spent his entire life on stage entertaining the world but now he had nothing left to offer. The magic had died. He left us with his music and asked for nothing in return, apart from perhaps forgiveness for some of the terrible decisions he’d made in his troubled private life. Michael Jackson’s place in history is indisputable – a genius performer he was quite simply the greatest entertainer of his generation.
The shock, sadness and ultimately the tragedy that was Michael Jackson's life will take a long time to dissipate for us all. However, let's console ourselves in the knowledge that the demons, troubles and the huge burden, that finally consumed him, of being the world's most famous celebrity,has now, at last, left him alone. God Bless Michael Joseph Jackson. May he rest in peace.
Michael Soyannwo, London
"When I heard that Michael had passed away, I got that feeling of dread; of the slight thought that you get from after years of loving a person, you know they would leave you through death sometime. However this was a passing of a loved one, gone too soon.
I being five years younger than Michael, saw him grow ahead of me as I grew. Like other events, both public and personal, I saw Michael's triumphs, challenges and downfalls. When he was young, he was exciting to see; bigger than a movie, the story being about music that could be both heard and seen. I loved hearing his voice as it sailed through a song, amazed at such a gift that God had given all of us. By the late seventies, when he was approaching a musical zenith, I was desperate to hear what Michael and the Jacksons, then Michael himself would create next. His albums Off the Wall, Triumph, and Thriller were just rollercoaster rides of sound and motion that you could not help moving to.
Then when Thriller was gone into history, I was a little sad, but looked forward to the rest of Michael's work. By this time, he was beginning to pay for the price of fame. In addition, the toll of an unbalanced life affected him and the music. By the time Invincible came out, my idolatry of this icon was gone; I had grown up, a little mad that this superstar performer had turned out the way he did, more musically than personally. Where was all of the epic stories of music that this man almost guaranteed to give us? You almost knew that the pains and abuses of a hard life would result in some thing worse.
Now that the worse had happened, so sudden in all our lives, I can only listen to the tributes. Upon listening to one of Michael's later songs on the radio, I couldn't help it. The excitement came back. The thrill of listening and visualizing this special man came back. You couldn't help but to move and remember how great Michael Jackson is" - Manuel Vidal, New York
"I was born just 2 months earlier than Michael Jackson. My sister raised me on Motown music. Adult music aimed at adult fans. Then... I heard The Jackson 5 - and I discovered music for MY age group!
From the moment I heard "I Want You Back" being premiered on Radio 1's Ed "Stewpot" Stewart's show, I was completely and utterly hooked. It was THE most exciting thing I'd ever heard and remains my all-time favourite song.
I idolized Michael and tried to mimick his moves, dress sense and those amazingly mature vocals. I failed on all levels! As the public started to slowly fall out of love with Michael and his brothers and they morphed into The Jacksons on Epic Records, and their second brush with fame and success, I continued my unabashed dedication of support.
I'd seen them perform on their 1972 UK tour, but was so eager to see them again in '79 on their "Destiny" tour of the UK. The day after the gig, I marched up to the biggest hotel in my home town of Birmingham, with my "Destiny" tour programme under my arm, and looked around to see if they were around. They were! Every brother but Michael was there in the hotel foyer, and they willingly signed my programme.
Trying not to sound too desperate, I politely asked "Where's Michael?". I was told that he was being interviewed at a local radio station, but would be back soon. A little while later, in walked Michael, with from what I can remember, just one adult as supervision. He was wearing a huge pair of fluffy white boots, which he'd bought from Switzerland, whilst they were on tour. I waited patiently whilst he signed an autograph for a girl and pecked her on the cheek with a little kiss. I then sidled up and smiled. He smiled back and I thanked him for all of the joy that his music had brought me over the years. He thanked me back. He then completed the autographs in my programme and I finished off wih saying "I don't want a kiss Michael, but I wouldn't mind shaking your hand!". He let out a little giggle and brought his hand up to his face in mild embarrassment, and then I shook his hand. It was a very soft, almost limp handshake, but it summed up his gentle nature.
After that, we stood for a few seconds awkwardly shuffling from foot to foot, before he smiled and wandered outside to where a bunch of kids were sliding up and down the iced covered pavement. I stood in mild amazement whilst a 21-year old Michael Jackson became a 12-year old kid and used the ground as an ice-slide. He'd even written his home address in biro on a little boy's hand, so that he could write to him. I think that just proves how lonely he was even back then, asking strangers to 'be his friend'.
I saw him in concert again, across all 3 of his solo tours (several times for each tour), but the strangeness in his lifestyle started to confuse and disappoint me, so the adoration gradually began to dry up. That was, until last Thursday night. When I first heard those reports, I know that I thought what a stack of people also thought - "What's Michael done now to get out of these concerts?".
I went to bed confused, frustrated, even angry. When I awoke the following morning, I felt like I'd dreamt the whole night before. I hadn't, but I still felt numb. It was only when I switched on the TV and amongst one collection of video clips, they played a 13-year old Michael singing "Ben"...and I started to weep. I wept for my childhood and I wept for his childhood. I'm not saying that I didn't have issues with the way Michael lived his life for the last few years, but for the time being, I've put those issues on one side, and I'm celebrating the glorious talents of this unique artist and entertainer.
Michael, if there was a way that you could read this, I'd just like to thank you for enriching my life with your music for so many years and making those informative years so very, very happy for me. I also hope that you're in a happier place too now.
Bless you Michael and thank you." Peter Ogle (UK)
"Michael Jackson, a PRODIGY, a gift to cherish, genius ( to call him a legend, icon is not adequate). I appreciate Mr. Stevie Wonder and his appropriateness in helping African-America navigate through soooooooo much, including this disaster with Mr. Michael Jackson.
I remember when the music of the Jackson "5" hit the airwaves and Ed Sullivan in 1967 in Los Angeles. Their music inspired my "teenage" spirit. I have loved them ( and especially Michael) every since. I am sooo hurt by his "leaving" so soon. And I am insulted with the propaganda on CNN, Fox, TMZ and the media that is slandering him and his family. Michael is a sweetheart." - selah/hotep, Nubian Queen
"Loving Michael Jackson still after all this time, michael is gone and so many people loved him and I wonder if he ever felt the love, the love that was real and the appreciation for him being such a great human being. I really would like to send my condolences to his family and loved ones in this time of sorrow. I think about him as with dr. king, they had a job to do and when it was done they were taken away. The song gone to soon is a true testament to michael and how we will miss him in the years to come. If he had pulled through can you imagine the headlines, he probably could not have taken any more bad being sad about him. thank you for allowing me to post." - Jeanise Ratcliff
"Hi, Mike, I'm writing from Italy, I've loved your music since Jackson 5, and then OFF THE WALL, THRILLER, It's very difficult the sensations you gave me when I listened for the first time Rock With You, with my eyes full of tears, tears of Joy, at last someone right!!!! and now you're gone away, you leave us your music, ypour talent in shows, concerts......I never can say goodbye, Michael,I pray God you may stay in peace now, so far from bad persons,.......R.I.P MICHAEL JACKOSN THE KING OF US ALWAYS IN MY HEART." - Max, Italy
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.