Two months have passed since the tragic death of the one and only Michael Jackson, one of the last of music’s great, genuinely innovative children. He was the last great multi-global pop sensation to break multi-cultural and international status as a timeless pop icon, and the only one since Elvis to transcend racial barriers and musical genres so seamlessly and convincingly.
His death has once again allowed a narrow clique of pretentious, self-righteous music journalists, many of whom have gleefully seized the moment to proclaim Jackson’s only real triumphs to be Off the Wall and Thriller before then writing him off as, amongst other things, a phoney, hypocrite, sell-out, second-guessing opportunist who had ‘lost touch’ with his brilliant talent. These criticisms are not only arrogant and daft, but they seem very ironic to any listener who listens to Jackson’s post-Thriller material in contrast to his pre-Thriller material – people notice how Jackson transcends the old sounds of pleasurable soul to create a richer, more powerful and original sound than before.
The group recordings at Motown and CBS as well as his early solo material from Got to be There till Off the Wall were all decent recordings and material, but at the same time very generic versions of 70s soul music suited around and straight jacketed to Jackson. From the Motown Corporation writers to Gamble and Huff to the sounds utilised on Off the Wall, the songs featured none of the grandeur and genre blended, heartfelt honest, truly individual and original output that Michael imprinted on his music when he took full control of his output from Bad onwards. When Off the Wall went to the Grammys, it only won one trophy – Best RnB vocal performance for Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough – the album’s sole nomination. It was clear from this reception that Jackson musically had not come of age – rather than the all-embracing King of Pop, he was simply another token black (style music) artist.
Thriller started the process which blew the doors off Jackson’s corporate straightjacket. It’s singles Thriller, Beat It and Billie Jean ruptured the nature of genres of soul, dance and rock, blending them seamlessly in all three cases, alongside revolutionary music videos. The sound of the album was not as conservative as Off the Wall, with Jackson testing moodier and pop-esque soul songs, Baby Be Mine, Human Nature and The Lady In My Life. The album went on to win an unprecedented 8 Grammys and over 100 million copies to date.
Bad, the follow up to Thriller, was pleasingly as different sounding as it could get – it signalled the real coming of age of Jackson as an artist who would innovate and revolutionise genres of pop, soul and rock music to fit his grand vision of music as a supremely colourless entity. Why should Jackson just be a ‘black artist’ in music terms? He rightfully freed music from the reigns of colour and broadcast it to everyone. Man in the Mirror set the standard for healing anthems, sending a good message to the world, accentuated on a grander scale; Smooth Criminal felt like a Broadway number, except with a funky dance beat – nothing in Motown or Off the Wall could match this.
It only got better with the 1990s releases of Dangerous and HIStory – his main masterpieces. Both albums are the most complete and most honest albums Jackson ever recorded. Dangerous’ brilliant experimentation ranging from Teddy Riley to Heavy D to Slash (from Guns n Roses) only confirmed the freedom that Jackson had to interpret and innovate styles of genre he had once Bad confirmed his total control of music. The gritty, edgy, blockbuster feel of Dangerous, heeding kick-ass compositions, Who Is It, Give In To Me, Dangerous, Jam, Black Or White, Will You Be There and Why You Wanna Trip On Me. Jackson Had truly become the contemporary Beethoven to Prince’s Mozart.
HIStory applied his groundbreaking approach to the sickening injustices he felt in the period of Dangerous. And it created the angriest record of his career which redeemed him in the music world. Ranging from Scream to Earth Song to Smile (amongst many other hits) his musical legacy since Bad was in effect complete. The follow ups, Blood On the Dancefloor and Invincible though not as solid brought joy to many who saw a mellower version of his early 1990s works.
Live shows were part of Jackson’s extraordinary staple. Again, by his best performances occurred during the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours where he combined wizardry, superb choreography, magnificent costumes and pure showmanship surpassing anything he did before.
Unfortunately, people still tend to get hung up about this so-called idea of his adhering to ‘whiteness’ following the paling of his skin colour. British actor Kwame Kwei-Armah even went on so much as to suggest the nonsensical view that Jackson was the ‘white Frankenstein that white America created’. Lionel Shriver said that Michael Jackson was a study in the apparent ‘shame’ of being black. The plain fact about this, however, is that Jackson had a severe case of vitiligo, and simply went far the other way after the blotches became too much. And for the shape of his nose, he was already having plastic surgery in that part of his face prior to the paling of his skin, so that criticism is automatically out of the equation.
His biggest gift though was creating himself not just as a talented human being but establishing Michael Jackson as an inimitable brand similar to James Brown in the 60s and 70s – an immortal figure/persona with an inimitable style of music who has an eternal belonging to the masses of the world as an icon for progress and supreme change. Just as James Brown recorded Don’t Be a Dropout, Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud and King Heroin, Jackson released Man In The Mirror, Earth Song and They Don’t Care About Us. He even set up the Heal the World and Heal the Kids Foundations non-profit organisations he funded during his peak years
Of course there was prescription drug abuse, scandals, merciless hiring and firing and all sorts, but, at the end of the day, isn’t that just typical Hollywood show business? What Jackson dealt with as far as nefarious habits (drugs) is no different from the vices of James Brown and Ray Charles before him. And in an environment where tragedy is commonplace, Jackson is surely, habit-wise, another tear in Hollywood’s rain?
Altogether, this is my personal tract on Jackson. The eternal legacy in the man has been written into his music, live performance and the great example he tried to show us all, no matter what vices occurred. Michael Jackson was one of the most decent, yet (commonly flawed) humans of the Hollywood age. Let his great presence in the late 80s and 90s be his epitaph.