Goodbye, Michael Jackson

michael-jackson-human-natureHere’s a clip of Michael Jackson with a song from his most popular album, 1982’s Thriller.  It’s “Human Nature”, my favourite track off of that smash LP which solidified Jackson as a worldwide phenomenon in a manner that I believe, for good or ill, will never occur again.

There is a lot we didn’t need when it came to Michael Jackson.  There was the eccentric behaviour, the self-mutilation disguised as serial celebrity surgical procedures, and of course there was the speculation about his sexual proclivities.  But, what is measured against all of that is his immense talent that seemed almost supernatural.  And where he drew inspiration from Jackie Wilson and James Brown, he inspired Justin Timberlake and every other dancing R&B pop singer in turn.  Love him or hate him, that’s what true artists do; they pass it on.

And of course there is his worldwide fame and celebrity, from smash albums in America, Canada, the UK and Europe, along with similar success in every corner of the planet for years and years from Thriller onward.  In the days before music, movies, and TV were at one’s fingertips through various online channels whenever we wanted them, Michael Jackson dominated popular culture, with his songs, his face, his influence pervading nearly every medium.  And it strikes me that in this current age of media fragmentation, such influence, such fame, can never again be so ubiquitous.

But, fame destroyed Jackson, argubly never having developed as a person, as a man, due to all of the other things on his plate when other kids his age were playing baseball, hide and seek, and out on their bikes.  For Michael, it was stage shows, Jackson 5 TV appearances, and (incredibly) a concurrent solo career by age 11.  He was the image of a person who was victimized by fame, becoming a parody of himself; an image that subsumed the man.

And why did this happen?  Why did he allow himself to get swallowed up by his own success?  Was it the money, the love emanating from his fans which he didn’t otherwise get when he needed it as a kid, or was it just insecurity, the insecurity of a child trapped in the shell of a grown man walled off from reality?

Whatever the reason, he was only human, and subject to the very human nature he sang about.

RIP Michael.

The Jackson 5 Perform “Maybe Tommorow”

Here’s a track by Gary Indiana’s first family of song The Jackson 5, featuring little Michael Jackson singing lead with their 1971 hit “Maybe Tomorrow”, the title track to the album Maybe Tomorrow. This was the group’s fourth album in two years, quite a long haul for a group of kids under 18.  Lead singer Michael was 13 years old when he recorded this.

The Jackson 5
Even for a group of kids, there wasn’t much time to feel the pressure by the time this song was recorded. The group’s profile not only involved touring and recording sessions, but TV network appearances and specials. There was even a Jackson 5 Saturday morning cartoon series. And for Michael, Jermaine, and Jackie, there were concurrent solo careers too, with Michael’s being the most prominent by the next year with his song “Ben”. Jackson-mania was a huge part of the cultural landscape in the early 70s.

The Jackson 5 have higher profile tunes, of course.  But, there’s something about this one I love, making me wonder why it isn’t among their most prominent hits.  It pulls in all kinds of musical influences starting from standard Motown soul-pop, yet also with the sumptuous strings of Philly Soul too.  It could be that this tune isn’t as chirpy as “ABC” or “I Want You Back”.  It seems to delve a bit deeper, for a pop tune at least.

The lyrics and the general feel of this song is melancholy to the extreme, making me wonder who thought it was a good idea for little Michael Jackson to sing it.  This song is about being in love, losing it, and deluding oneself that it will return.  The material calls for such world-weariness, that if I were the producer who didn’t know who I was working with, I’m not sure I’d have recommended it for a bunch of kids to sing.

But, by 1971 this group had proven its worth at getting nearly any song over without distracting an audience with the incongruity of a pre-teen singing convincingly about losing a lover.  Of course it helped that falsetto singing was very much in style by then by way of Curtis Mayfield and The Stylistics, among others.  And the group know enough about presenting the material in such a way that you forget the performers.  In fact, this is their key genius as a group.  And it would prove to be something of a testing ground for scores of kid groups who would come after them, from the Osmonds, to Musical Youth,  to Hanson, to the Jonas Brothers.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the childhood of Michael Jackson, and how it may have contributed to his current troubles as an adult.  It’s impossible for me to comment on that one way or another. In looking at the track record of this group with so many number ones in such a short period of time, it’s easy to forget how young they were.  And by 1971, they had been signed to a major label – Motown – for three years.  They were veterans.

Further, they were veterans with a lot of expectations on them to keep the hits coming. That’s an awful lot of pressure for a little kid to manage, particularly coming from the modest background that the Jacksons did.  Imagine the pressure to keep the hit machine rolling, possibly for fear of having to return to an old life of financial uncertainty, with a Dad who allegedly viewed you as little more than a cash cow.

But the slow-down eventually happened by the mid-70, and the Jacksons had had their day, having outgrown their image which was not updated with them.  Although they remained active intermittently after their heyday, by the end of the 70s, Michael Jackson had overshadowed them .  And of course, the craziness was just beginning for Michael, when his 1982 Thriller album changed the rules for everyone.


Michael Jackson Sings ‘Rock With You’

Here’s a clip of former Jackson 5 frontboy Michael Jackson with his 1979 disco-pop radio smash “Rock With You” as taken from the superlative pre-Thriller , pre-superfame, pre-Whacko Jacko album, Off the Wall.

This song is quite simply one of the most joyous pop records ever made.

It’s one of those songs which contains an entire world inside it – a world of innocence, fun, and freedom, characterized by an ethereal beauty beneath its infectious dance grooves.  This is the fantasy world of late night disco parties, yet free of the jaded self-indulgence. This is the purity of youth, of young love, and the power of movement and music that brings it all together.

There are songs which are of their time, and this is certainly one of them.  Yet, in this case, its being of its time is not a detriment to how well it’s aged.  It’s more like something which is preserved in amber; a time, a feeling, a state of being that can not be repeated, yet can certainly be celebrated every time it’s heard.  When Michael says ‘rock with you’ he really is talking about dancing.  In this, we get the good side of Jackson’s gravitation towards childhood; a time when all intentions are pure, and everything said is as honest as it will ever be.

This is Michael Jackson in a transitional period in his career, barely into his twenties and already a veteran recording star.  In this, he carries himself as the relaxed pro, hitting each tone as it should be hit, and certainly getting inside the material and making us believe it.  Some how on this record, you just know this guy has the moves.  You don’t have to see him dance, you just know that he’s as good as his word.  If Thriller put him into the stratosphere and into the realm of insanity at the same time, this was the sound of Jackson as the singer, the entertainer, and not as the self-styled pop Messiah of later years.

For me, this is the Michael Jackson  we all want him to be; the consummate performer, transporting us to a world of dance floors and young love as easily as a spirit moving over the waters.  It’s a cruel irony that the very thing that made him great would also be his undoing.  Yet, when I hear ‘Rock With You’, the pale tragic figure that became a self-parody couldn’t be further away.