First of all, let me say that I do not usually post this soon after such a lengthy and difficult to compose entry as the previous one regarding a half-year assessment of the music of 2009. Only the death of somebody as big as Michael Jackson could force me to share some of my thoughts on the subject, and this is the first typed statement I have regarding it. I would like to add that one of my favorite bloggers at http://xolondon.blogspot.com/
has already said some wonderful things rather eloquently, and celebrities as John Taylor of Duran Duran did a very good job putting it all into context. The following is a purely personal statement.
Michael Jackson was never my favorite artist, my favorite singer, or my favorite performer. He was not my favorite songwriter either. However, Michael Jackson was a cultural phenomenon who blossomed during my teenage years, and his music was inescapeable. While it may sound that I was somewhat trapped by his presence, his music and image did do a great deal to pave the way for other artists such as Prince and Madonna to break into the pop mainstream, and even though his music was generally appealing to me, I was not a devotee. As millions of others, I owned Off the Wall and Thriller, only to be shocked at how he permanently transformed his appearance for Bad, and continued on that path until his demise. Only Pete Burns and Cher have come as close as musicians in physically altering who they once were. But I will try to stick to the music...
Growing up as a teenager in the center of the US in the early 80's, I was very saturated with the late-70's corporate rock and singer-songwriters who were faceless voices on the radio. While some of this music had its merits, much of it was produced and promoted by a system of suits running ever-growing corporate conglomerates. Disco was declared dead--a genre which produced some great music but few great artists with lasting success (Donna Summer comes to mind, while the Bee Gees managed to come from 60's pop and push past into MOR pop to a much smaller degree). Michael was still riding a bit of disco with Off the Wall, but Thriller was something really different, and the music videos from that album, along with early cinematic masterpieces by David Bowie and Duran Duran, helped make MTV a driving force for promoting new pop music to a young population and wake music sales from the doldrums (of course, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Eurythmics, Prince, and many others would feed the frenzy). Suddenly, you could not have a hit record unless your videos were being played on MTV. Without Michael Jackson and his music mini-movies, MTV might never have happened, and popular music would not have developed such a visual aspect.
I remember the night the Thriller video premiered on MTV, and they played it over and over in case you missed anything and wanted to catch it again. I must have watched it at least four times that night, entranced by the makeup and the dialog. The presence of Vincent Price's voice on a pop record only added to the drama. Then there was the dancing. Amazing. I remember trying to figure out what he was doing with the choreography, and it would have an enormous impact on my later love for his sister Janet's music, videos, and dancing as well. As far as dancing in music videos, nobody else came close until the 90's and Madonna's Vogue (Prince had some great moves, but seemed more moved by the music and less choreographed). Even a song like Bad, one that I did not like, had a video with great dance moves.
My first job in a music shop came when Dangerous was released. I remember it sitting on the shelves a bit, with backstocked copies wanting to find homes (actually, U2's Achtung Baby had a similar gestation). Over the course of a year, Dangerous did well, but was no Thriller or even Bad. A song like Jam seemed oddly aggressive for a guy who appeared ever more delicate.
A few years later in 1995, History seemed an even tougher sell. My wife and I went to a promotional laser-Michael Jackson show at the planetarium in center city Philadelphia, and while Michael was nowhere to be found (after all, who ever REALLY got close to him?), the music was better than expected. History remains, for me, his oddly forgotten masterpiece, as his record company, Epic, did the odd thing of bundling it as a 2cd set with a disc of greatest hits. This may have been shrewd at the time as a ploy to get people to buy the new album (after all, there had not been any Michael Jackson hits collection released up to that point). It is my belief that Epic knew they had a tough sell on their hands, especially after one allegation of pedophaelia had already been dismissed by the courts, but the songs had also become more obscure and isolationist. It seemed as though while Michael continued reaching out for other production talents like Dallas Austin and David Foster, his music became increasingly arch.
Scream featured sister Janet on vocals, and produced the most expensive video ever made, and while it was a great song and clip, all these excesses only added to the eccentricity of their creator. Songs like Childhood, Little Susie, Stranger in Moscow, and Earth Song showed a vulnerability and depth we hadn't really experienced since Human Nature from 1983's Thriller (possibly excepting Dangerous' Gone Too Soon--Man in the Mirror always seemed a bit phony to me coming from him). Other than Scream and You Are Not Alone--songs more propelled by radio play than sales--Michael struggled to have hits and remain relevant. Earth Song may have been a sign for the future, but it was rather out of step in 1995, and They Don't Care About Us got him criticism for using racial slurs about Jews to illustrate his points on hatred and racial intolerance, eventually caving to self-censorship to get it on the radio, which didn't really happen anyway. Songs like Money and Tabloid Junkie seemed increasingly self-referential (almost like Morrissey on You Are the Quarry!), and a creepy element colored Childhood's seemingly innocent tone. Blood on the Dancefloor, a remix album that was issued in 1997, seemed like a desperate attempt to get more sales out of a project that was relatively dismissed by the public (History), and failed. Invisible did even worse, with a been there-done that video for You Rock My World, featuring a near-catatonic Marlon Brando in one of his final roles, and a rather nice song, Butterflies, which tellingly had no video and no real backing from the record label.
Michael's last televised interview was with Billy Bush of Access Hollywood in October of 2006(!), and featured Michael in the studio in Ireland with Will.i.am working on his latest masterpiece. Hopefully that will now come sooner than later. This seems to have been the problem with Michael's music for me. It always seemed so micromanaged to the point that all the life began being sucked away from it. His music has always had a rather rigid and brittle nature to it, containing very little of the spontaneous nature of Prince's music or joyous abandon of Madonna's. Here is where Michael never really succeeded, as he was such a perfectionist. His music started to seem dated before it even got released due to the length of time spent perfecting certain sounds, and it became more about judging his music for what it did not contain than what it did.
Setting the persona and personal dramas aside, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer and a cultural icon whose music seemed to have lost much of its relevance. In effect, he did this to himself. He knew he was incapable of playing and producing everything like Prince, and in that sense, he did do himself a great service by allowing other producers a crack at helping create more modern material for him, even if it was dated by the time it was released. (Maybe Prince could take note and open his palette a bit). That being said, eveything Michael did left one with a feeling that the persona was bigger than the music, and no matter how much you liked a song of his, there was no separating the song from the singer.
For as many years as I have been listening to Michael, I feel like I don't know him any better than the first day I heard him. His music does very little to open the doors to the real him, or maybe that IS the real him, all cold and brittle beats with a bit of schmaltz thrown in once in a while to melt our hearts. Infuriatingly, we may never know more about the real man than we do now through the songs which obviously mean so much to millions (don't get me started on how his records sold out across the world on the announcement of his death--if you ever liked Michael, you would have had those records all along. It seems like a very disingenous thing to do.) If his songs really do represent the man he was, he was rarely happy, frequently sad, lonely, angry, scared, pathetic, and misunderstood. It makes for a compelling story, but not a life anybody would aspire to lead. Michael has become nostalgia for me, and while I will always respect what he created, it is not a place I wish to inhabit for very long.
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