Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: 1958-2009

Video killed the radio star, hip-hop killed rock, mp3 killed the album, runaway consolidation and niche marketing killed pop music, and now the self-appointed King Of Pop is dead. I guess it all adds up in the end somehow, doesn't it?

For me, this news isn't quite like Kurt Cobain shooting himself with Nirvana still reigning (albeit in wobbly fashion) as the biggest rock act on the planet: the shock and loss just isn't there. The Michael Jackson that I choose to remember fondly tonight vanished over twenty years ago: a troubled ex-child star who'd started to come apart at the seams in the turbulent wake of one of the biggest pop culture achievements of the century. If you want to read a more thorough and in-depth life story or perhaps a litany of his greatest weirdest moments, you're going to have to look elsewhere as I'm here to celebrate Jackson's halcyon days before the looming specter of middle age and the yawning chasm of 24/7 celebrity culture programming turned his life into the world's weirdest reality show.

There will be a lot of talk about financial foolishness, lost childhood and Peter Pan obsessions, but if you really want to get some clearer idea of the real tragedy of Michael Jackson, simply watch "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You" and "Billie Jean" for a clear look at the vibrant, raw talent he once was. Primitive by today's standards (oooh, lasers!) these clips still offer an instant primer to understanding Jackson's popularity at the time as his voice, stage presence and stunning physical grace were simply unmatched in pop music.

Then along came The Big One: despite essentially being a PG-rated re-shoot of An American Werewolf In London (by way of a George Romero zombie film), the John Landis-directed "Thriller" video continues to hold up under scrutiny 26 years after its debut. Universally hailed at the time as the greatest video ever created, there are definitely arguments that can be made that "Thriller" still holds claim to the title. Even if you disagree on that point, there is no argument that "Thriller" remains a conceptual, cultural and budgetary milestone, and perhaps the most fully-formed realization of the possibilities of the music video format. That said, this short film (and, more to the point, its parent album) also created an impossible standard that Jackson sought continuously to beat for the rest of his life.

The follow-up to a blockbuster solo debut, Thriller was not only the kind of a mega hit you only saw once per decade, it pretty much dominated the entire year of 1983 (with only The Police's Synchronicity putting up any kind of spirited fight for the throne). As a fourteen year old with an insatiable fascination for the music business, Thriller made for a hell of a story to follow as single after single made the Top 10 and the album sold in the kinds of quantities that record companies never dared to dream of. Beyond that angle, I don't think Thriller had a major effect on my tastes as I was pretty well over the moon on New Wave and electropop, with my taste in R&B more along the lines of "Rockit" and "Little Red Corvette" than, say, "P.Y.T." Listening to the album now remains a largely entertaining 45 minutes, with the lyrical subtexts a lot more noticeable thanks to the passage of time: Thriller is the state of Jackson's psyche at the end of 1982: a bit naive ("Human Nature"), intermittently dark and intense ("Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Beat It"), yet possessed of a certain charming innocence that, in its resolute failure to change, started to became increasingly creepy and disconcerting over the albums that followed.

A barely-memorable reunion album and tour with The Jacksons in 1984 was the only peep the world heard from Michael Jackson for nearly three years while the hub-bub from Thriller-mania gradually died down. It was during this crucial down time that throwaway sight gags in comedies like Beverly Hills Cop began to send-up Jackson's style and image, while the first real whispers of "that boy ain't right" began to circulate in the gossip columns. Over time, the aura of invincibility around The Gloved One began to ever-so-slowly dim.

Then came 1987's ravenously-awaited Bad, which managed to become a decent-sized follow up for Jackson as far as sales and popularity were concerned (and I don't think anyone aside from Jackson really expected anything approaching halfway to Thriller's ridiculous level of success), but was also a record that I personally found to be a troubling letdown. Despite some of returning producer Quincy Jones' best work and top-flight musicianship deployed throughout, Bad was the beginning of Jackson ratcheting up his own self-importance to nearly unbearable levels while perfecting the art of writing songs and creating videos that screamed "HEY EVERYBODY! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! DAMN IT, GO AWAY AND STOP LOOKING AT ME!"

Four years after Thriller, high-budget music videos with dialogue and Hollywood actors were commonplace, and Jackson had his work cut out for him attempting to reset the playing field. In trying to continually up the ante on himself, Jackson's newer clips became self-parodic mini-epics where he tried to have it both ways: you know, the kiddie-friendly entertainer who happens to be a hard-assed, hair-trigger street-fighting man not to be trifled with by anyone (eventually up to and including Marlon Brando for crissakes). It is here that I signed off and moved on, letting what eventually became Wacko Jacko The Morphing Human Freakshow become the preferred pet of the tabloid crowd. Besides, by 1988, I was neck deep in the far more interesting weirdness being released by Prince, Jackson's only true competition that whole decade, if not exactly his successor.

In the end, I'll simply forget that the last 20 years ever happened as far as Jackson's career goes and remember him for that first electric decade of solo work and the timeless 70s soul he cut as a child with The Jackson 5. After that, let's just say that he wasn't my King Of Pop. Dangerous? Hardly. Invincible? No. HIStory? Sadly, yes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Thriller-era MJ and the MJ since Bad seem to me to be two completely different people.