The longest running, slowest-moving curtain call in show business is over. The black and white minstrel show is cancelled. It’s been a long time since he changed the music business into something it now regrets (where in excess wasn’t a band but a strategy). It’s been even longer since Michael Jackson’s music was the most exciting thing to come out of a radio.
In the year that man walked on the moon, the man who invented moonwalking landed in our midst. ‘I Want You Back’ introduced the Jackson 5, and few pop songs – or careers – have opened with such an impact. It starts at full throttle, the piano-driven introduction pulling Michael centre stage to give a desperate, attention-grabbing wail. I’ve arrived, it declared, and I want you back. I’ve got some help: Smokey Robinson (“Oo oo baby”) and the Beatles (“Yeah, yeah, now”). And I’m as funky as James Brown (“All I want! Abuh-buh-buh-buh. All I need!”). He was just 11.
Within a year the Jacksons had conquered America with their family-friendly funk. Looking like Sly Stone’s church-going cousins, they became the ultimate crossover act, reversing Elvis’s journey. Ed Sullivan loved them; the Osmonds copied them. They even became a cartoon show on TV, pre-dating The Partridge Family and The Cosby Show.
The J5 were well drilled; their father’s heavy hand made certain, and Motown producers nicknamed “The Corporation” did the rest. But Michael Jackson’s mastery of everything he did – as well as his cuteness – meant he eclipsed his brothers immediately. Since the age of five, he had been putting the work in. Looking out the window during rehearsals, watching other children play (cue: string quartet). Standing in the wings, watching Jackie Wilson and James Brown tear up stages, conducting with their feet, as much acrobats as singers.
If ‘Ben’, Jackson’s first solo No 1, was an early warning of trouble (a 15-year-old with a lachrymose ode … to his pet rat?) then one of his last gasps with the J5 hinted at his revolutionary musical future. The smiling harmonies learnt at Motown, the sophisticated slickness of Philly, the irresistible simplicity of disco’s rhythms, and the infectious, daffy lyrics: “Don’t blame it on the sunshine / don’t blame it on the moonlight / don’t blame it on the good times / Blame it on the boogie.”
He could dance before he could sing, and his idols went back, way back: beyond Motown trainer Cholly Atkins and Sammy Davis Jr to Cab Calloway and the cakewalks of ragtime. Playing the Scarecrow in The Wiz was pivotal, and appropriate: a childhood fantasy with a legacy, a sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster that couldn’t be improved. It starred his mentor/obsession, Diana Ross (surrender, Dorothy!), and the original featured Judy Garland. He did love the divas, and the child stars.
Crucially, on The Wiz he met Quincy Jones, a musical veteran who always chases the cutting edge of pop. He helped Jackson realise Off the Wall, the album many regard as his peak. Jones gave the album focus, and a state-of-the-art sheen. But it was Jackson’s success: he used everything he’d learnt about delivery, with an added passion fuelled by having something to prove. It displayed his mastery of groove (‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,’ ‘Get On the Floor,’ ‘Workin’ Day and Night’) and soul (his anguished but controlled singing of the ballads, ‘She’s Out of My Life,’ Paul McCartney’s gift, ‘Girlfriend,’ and the Stevie Wonder impersonation, ‘I Can’t Help It’).
A massive hit, Off the Wall built the foundation for its unexpected sequel. In 1983 Jackson turned a lacklustre Motown TV special into a spectacular showcase. He teased with something new: the charged rhythm of ‘Billie Jean’, while looking coyly from beneath a fedora, his thin legs poised, with too-short black trousers exposing white socks so we could follow his ankles. He then unveiled the moonwalk: a dance that simultaneously goes forward and back, but strangely goes nowhere, proving some rule of physics.
Fifty million viewers saw it, and most of them voted with their feet to buy Thriller. It was Off the Wall remodelled for the 1980s, turned up to 11: the imposing rhythms, the vocal theatrics, the fusion of dance and rock, the paranoid psychodramas in the lyrics. Eddie Halen had a walk-on role, and so did horror ham Vincent Price. It arrived just as music television was hitting its stride, and Jackson’s videos were, of course, epics. With more singles than a dating agency, Thriller’s success kept building on itself; the record companies got greedy, and Jackson became a megalomaniac to rival Mussolini.
Many careers relied on the success of its follow-up. Bad now seems like the soundtrack to the 1987 sharemarket crash: a post-modern exploitation of what had come before, turned into ugly songs and uglier clothes. Mirror-glass architecture with few tenants. Two songs have lasted, although one is just a mechanised, intoxicating groove, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’ The most sincere could have been a showstopper from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ‘The Man in the Mirror’ advised that world peace started in the home: “take a look at yourself and then make a change.” Simultaneous with the album’s marketing overkill came a blacklash, from African-American critics outraged at the surgical betrayal of his race (and his talent).
In the 22 years since, there was Dangerous – the title seemed ludicrous, before the paedophilia allegations – HIStory and Invincible. But his greatest hits have all been headlines. He was addicted to many things: fame of course, though the fame industry has long seemed like an accessory to a living hell. Despite his messianic best intentions – We are the world, we are the children – Jackson exemplified what can go wrong in human nature.
Once, he was the embodiment of a century of artistic achievement in popular culture. He became yet another example of Little Richard’s Rule of Rock’n’Roll: “He got what he wanted, but he lost what he had.” BB King would say, “The thrill has gone.” The day that Jackson died, it was the refrain from an old spiritual that haunted me: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.”
Tweaked a little since it was first published in the NZ Listener, 11 July 2009