Remembering Michael Jackson the Musician, Not MJ the Celebrity


michael-jackson-obitEvery media outlet in the world is already covering the news of Michael Jackson's surprising death today from cardiac arrest at age 50. So why write an obituary for Culture Catch? Jackson's music was part of the soundtrack of my life, and I loved much of it. But whenever musicians reach the level of fame that he did, they are viewed more as celebrities than talents, and their celebrity is written about rather than their art. I don't care about all the detritus of celebrity, I just want to remember his music, because that's all that really matters. The rest is for people who watch Jon and Kate Plus Eight or whatever other crap is being used to distract them this week.

That "soundtrack of my life" thing? It's in spite of the fact that Jackson (born August 29, 1958) was just two years older than I am. But even though Jackson died young, he had a 45-year career, because he got an earlier start on fame than most musicians. He never really had a "childhood" in the sense that most of us use that word. He was working professionally, with practically no personal control over his choices, practically from the moment he began performing with his brothers in the Jackson 5 when he was five years old. He quickly became the star of the group; when they won a 1966 talent show in their home state of Indiana, it was thanks to his lead vocal on their rendition of the Temptations' "My Girl." An Apollo amateur talent show win in '67 brought them to the attention of Gladys Knight; the following year, they auditioned for Motown. (No, Diana Ross didn't "discover" them, though her strong advocacy for the group certainly helped. They opened for her at the L.A. Forum in 1969 when Michael was still ten years old.)

At age 11, Michael was an international superstar; in the space of a year, the Jackson 5 had hit #1 on the pop charts with their first four singles: "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There." (They came from three LPs; when Berry Gordy decided to milk something for all it was worth, he had enough people on the case to crank out a serious amount of product.)

In 1971 Motown started marketing Michael separately with singles released under his name; in '72 "Ben," the theme song of a movie about a trained rat, was a #1 hit. But Motown, whether because it alienated its stars or lost its mojo by moving from Detroit to Los Angeles or both (or because musical fashions inevitably change), lost its "juice" and the group’s records didn't maintain their early level of chart success.

Believing that Motown wasn't properly prioritizing them, and frustrated by a complete lack of control over their music, the brothers (except for Jermaine, who was married to Gordy's daughter Hazel) left Motown for CBS in 1976. The lawsuits started flying immediately; when the dust settled, though, their flight had largely succeeded aside from the loss of the name Jackson 5; from that point on, they were the Jacksons instead. The brothers' 1978 album Destiny, their first self-production, proved that they weren't just puppets whose success hinged on others' songs and production, and its main single, the Michael-penned "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," eventually reached #7 in 1979. Later that year Jackson relieved his father of managing duties and hired attorney John Branca, thus declaring his independence (Branca soon proved his worth by getting Jackson the highest royalty rate in the business). 

off-the-wallEverything came together for Michael's Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones (they met when Michael played the Scarecrow in the movie The Wiz) with Jackson co-producing three tracks. "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," released a month before the LP, was an innovative, hyper track that showcased Michael's quirky new singing style with its frequent staccato interjections (sort of like James Brown grunts on helium). It not only hit #1 and won Jackson a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, it quickly became such an iconic song that post-punk/no wave radicals James Chance & the Contortions started opening their shows with an amped-up cover of it (heard best on a May 13, 1980 concert in Paris, Live aux Bains Douches). "Rock with You" "Rock with You" (penned, as was the title track, by ex-Heatwave member Rod Temperton) also hit #1, and "Off the Wall" and "She's Out of My Life" both hit #10, making Off the Wall the first LP to yield four U.S. Top Ten hits. Thriller

But Jackson was not satisfied -- he stated that he should have won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards -- and felt driven to top this success. From that desire came, in 1982, the pop music juggernaut Thriller, again co-produced by Jackson and Jones. Off the Wall peaked at #3 on the LP chart; Thriller spent 37 weeks at #1 and spawned seven Top Ten singles (the LP has nine songs): "Human Nature" (soon covered by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis), "Beat It," "The Girl Is Mine" (a duet with Paul McCartney), "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," "Billie Jean," "Wanna Be Startin' Something," and the title track.

People had been criticizing MTV for not playing videos by black artists, but they couldn't ignore all of these songs, especially after Sony applied pressure, and "Billie Jean'"s exuberant paranoia swept the nation. And the guitar-heavy "Beat It" was a natural for MTV, with session ace Steve Lukather (Toto) laying down a gritty riff and Eddie Van Halen contributing a ripping guitar solo. Jackson's grandiose vision for "Beat It's West Side Story-inspired video, complete with 80 gang members and 18 professional dancers, was rejected by Sony as too expensive, but Jackson just went ahead and paid for it himself. The video for "Thriller" the song (written by Rod Temperton and featuring famed horror actor Vincent Price reciting the song's closing lines and delivering his trademark chilling laugh) went even farther, and its monumental long-form video (14 minutes for a 6-minute song!) filled with dancing zombies dominated MTV in 1984. The amount of mass choreography in "Beat It" and "Thriller" was unprecedented in music videos, though Jackson's massive success quickly inspired imitators.

Jackson and Jones made a great team. There was friction; they often disagreed. But they were very complementary. Jones, a highly trained jazz musician with decades of production experience, had the cream of L.A. sessionmen eager to work with him. Jackson, an unschooled musician who had made up for his lack of book training through an epic amount of practice of performance craft, found in Jones a man who could take Jackson's raw, unrefined ideas and give them to a team of highly adept musicians who could give those ideas form and bring them to life: trumpeter Jerry Hey, who wrote the horn arrangements; funky bassist Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson; guitarists Wah Wah Watson, Paul Jackson, and Phil Upchurch; keyboardists Michael Boddicker, George Duke, David Foster, and Greg Phillinganes; most members of Toto, etc. And, for that matter, Rod Temperton, whose songs took some of the creative pressure off Jackson. None of the foregoing is meant to minimize the importance of Jackson himself in the process; his imagination, ideas, and skills kept the albums from sounding like run-of-the-mill hackwork. The tension between Jackson and Jones, at least on their first two records together, kept things fresh, as did the incorporation of so many styles and genres.

Thriller stayed in the album charts for 80 weeks (1982-84). Riding this spectacular momentum, Michael reunited with the Jacksons for the Victory album and tour, symbolically returned to Motown for one night to celebrate the label's 25th anniversary at a televised concert that made Jackson's "moonwalk" dance a phenomenon in itself, and co-wrote (with Lionel Ritchie) the best-selling charity song ever, "We Are the World."

Jackson as a cultural phenomenon became more of a story than Jackson as talented performer, his every whim reported breathlessly. Crazy rumors were reported as fact -- but then, he'd started some of those rumors himself. Fabulously wealthy, he could do nearly anything he wanted. Things spiraled out of control and he was dubbed "Wacko Jacko."

Thriller remains the best-selling album of all time. Obviously Jackson never topped it. He kept trying to, though. Bad (1987) still has Jones co-producing, but no Temperton songs, and with all but two of its eleven tracks written by Jackson, there was a sense that he'd spread himself too thin this time, become formulaic. Nonetheless, the first five singles off the album all hit #1; commercially speaking, he was still the biggest star music had, and the parallel tour set myriad records, including its $125,000,000 gross. Dangerous

Jackson at least tried to avoid repeating himself on 1991's Dangerous by hiring Teddy Riley to co-produce, but its airtight New Jack Swing sound (which seemed dated in the wake of grunge) found him chasing trends too late rather than starting them. Dangerous achieved sales that most artists would love, but again that failed to satisfy Jackson. Sometimes when one tries to hard to top something, one merely goes over the top, and that's what happened to Jackson with the "Black or White" video, which made a spectacular impact with its morphing of multiple faces but became mired in controversy over some sexually suggestive gestures and the shocking violence of its ending. Too bad, because "Black or White" was the best synthesis of Jackson's Thriller style with Riley's electronic hip-hop. Michael might not be able to sustain his brilliance for entire albums any more (and CD length was resulting in a lot more padding and filler), but there were still flashes of genius.

Jackson followed up with the oddly conceived HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I (1995), combining a disc of new material with a greatest-hits disc. True, it's the best-selling multi-disc album ever, but given the immense popularity of "You Are Not Alone," the first single to ever debut at #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 Chart, a stand-alone album might have moved vastly more units. Then again, it was very erratic and uneven (and its references to his personal troubles make for uncomfortable listening), so maybe not. HIStory was supported by Jackson's last world tour and by one of the most egomaniacal promotions ever enacted by a pop star (as opposed to a military dictator): gigantic statues identical to the one on the cover of the album were erected around the globe. Over the top again. 

With 2001's Invincible, Jackson took his last shot at world domination, but failed utterly (though he did manage one further distinction: the 38-minute video for "Ghost" set a length record for music videos). With Sony barely promoting the album in the wake of Jackson's announcement that it would be his last for the company, it sold "only" ten million copies, far below the performance of his other albums. Beset by legal and financial woes since then, Jackson released no new albums before his death. He was about to embark on a 50-concert series in London, however. He had hinted at retirement afterwards. - Steve Holtje

Michael Jackson Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet, composer, and music critic who also edits cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press.