Michael Jackson: Essential?

Within and without the headlines, scandals and ‘wacko’ tags, its easy to forget Michael Jackson the artist.

musicOMH offers an opportunity to look beyond, at the man who may come to define the last 40 years of popular music in all its finery and tragedy.

“The essence of a thing appears to have meant ‘those of its properties which it cannot change without losing its identity'” – Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy
“…When people see me / they scandalise my name” – Troubled Waters, 1930s show song

When Sony released The Essential Michael Jackson earlier this year, the rhetoricism of the title rang false. What set the Sony effort apart from HIStory, Number Ones and various Tamla collections was the first honest effort to piece together all of Jacko’s top line hits in one collection, pret-a-porter, as it were. This meant that everything from the Jackson 5’s effervescent I Want You Back to the tentative, hesitant You Rock My World found a home over the chronologically organised two-disc set.

All in all, The Essential Michael Jackson constituted 38 tracks, a good deal of which much of the free-spending world (and beyond) could claim to have invested either time or money in its component parts. Of course, these singles only begin to tell the story.

The first disc chronicled the self-proclaimed King Of Pop’s first 14 years of recording, from when the precocious 12-year-old and his four older brothers arrived fully chaperoned from the Berry Gordy production line with the energy and poise of mini-me James Browns. The disc closes with Thriller, the title track from the 1983 Epic album of the same name.

In rock criticism, hyperbole is often bandied about with the carelessness of national stereotypes in the mouth of the Duke Of Edinburgh, and many bold claims are made about the ‘importance’ of every Joe Blow And His Rockin’ Combo’s latest 1,000 unit-shifting meandering. Yet, Thriller (global sales of 59 million and counting) caused ripples far and wide, well outside the goldfish bowl of the music industry.

As Jackson and his producer Quincy Jones took four years to make another record (unusual now, unprecedented then), the follow-up had plenty of time to build up expectation. A disappointment to some on its release, Bad has still gone on to sell log 28 million sales. Indeed, to a generation under 25, the Jackson of Bad, give or take a nip or tuck, is their Jackson, just as successive generations of British children would have their own particular Doctor Who.

This Jackson is one where the subtexts of Jackson’s success are already taken for granted, where the aspirations of Motown and the shifting signals of this new computer-smart R&B were immediately assimilated by a new generation, paving the way for the creative and commercial dominance of modern R&B (effectively Black Pop). The success of Thriller made the wearying racial polarisation of US radio programming, so well documented in Nelson George’s The Death Of Rhythm And Blues, a thing of the past. Or so it seemed.

“To fully appreciate the sickness of Jackson’s savaging of his African physiognomy you have to recall that back when he wore his face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi.”
Greg Tate, Flyboy In The Buttermilk.

Though he took much from the Godfather Of Soul, the young Jackson’s sensibilities were honed as much by endless hours assimilating the lessons of Beatle pop, and the folk-schmaltz tendencies of Simon & Garfunkel. As Disc 1 of The Essential attests, the young Jackson could lurch into middle-of-the-road sentimentality (Got To Be There, Ben) as comfortably as he could assimiltate the instincts and desires of a fully grown adult male in I Want You Back and ABC.

Despite lacking the authentic life-experiences to empathise fully with the lyrics and the sensual force of the Motown house band, like all great singers, the young Jackson made you believe. As adolescence dawned, the young Michael looked to escape the confines of Gordy’s controlling label, and the allegedly abusive atmosphere of his family. At least to the outside world, the teenage Michael had the world at his ever mobile feet, with all the trappings and rewards that success might bring to a young man in the richest country in the world. The identities he had assumed in the songs of others, would now be a reality.

The restless Jackson recruited Philadelphia International’s Gamble and Huff team for the band’s recordings (now known simply as The Jacksons), and it was through them that he discovered the technical means to draw out sounds he heard in his head and the right rhythms to wrap around his lean frame. With the help of respected veteran jazz musician / composer Quincy Jones and Brit-born Rod Temperton, Jackson’s education would soon be complete.

“…Got a light-skinned friend look just like Michael Jackson / got a dark-skinned friend look just like Michael Jackson”
KanYe West, Slow Jamz, 2004.

The cover shot of The Essential… captures Jackson at the cut-off moment, between execution of the dream and realisation of the dream, between celebrity and hermitage, between superstardom and messiah, and finally, disappointingly, between black and between white. His face, still full-lipped, afro now processed, yet his eyes… already more oval than elliptic, and the suspicious nose…

It’s possible that Jackson’s submission to the surgeon’s scalpel had not already begun (and is still denied by Jackson himself), and at this point he is still recognisably himself. The headshot reveals the collar of his Thriller red leathers. It is this Jackson that is frozen in time for many of his older fans. And it is a version of this Jackson, a bad-assed, pimped-up and profanity-crazy fantasy Jackson, that Leigh Francis turned into the grotesque familiar from Bo’ Selecta.

By the time Bad arrived, it was clear the old Bowie pop-game of fancy dress (then being indulged in with cut-throat knowingness by one Madonna Ciccone) had turned into something altogether more sinister. Not only had Jackson’s face noticeably altered, his skin now had a blanched-out, overexposed look, a reverse of the ‘blacking-up’ favoured by music-hall combo’s popular with British audiences right up to the mid ’70s.

As Greg Tate made explicit in his short essay ‘I’m White! What’s Wrong With Michael Jackson’, “black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram against the barricades of American apartheid”. When MTV refused to play Billie Jean on grounds of ‘unsuitability’, Epic withdrew all of all their acts from the fledgling broadcaster. MTV famously caved in, forever shifting the axis of their playlist away from the soft rock of yore and towards R&B flavoured pop.

By including Eddie Van Halen‘s slick power-chordage on Beat It!, the crossover success of Thriller was sealed. Rather than return to the disco heat of Off The Wall, or the precisely honed machine-soul of Billie Jean, Bad used Beat It as its template for nailing down the essence of this new Jackson. By the time 1991’s Dangerous dropped, the cross-marketing, like Jackson’s records, had a self-conscious predictability.

…He says he conducts his private life “just like a haemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in anyway”.
Gerri Hershey, interviewing Michael Jackson, 1984

This time, Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses provided the looped, circular tag of Black Or White, the album’s lead single. To the dismay of many, rather than I Want You Back, Don’t Stop, or Billie Jean, it is Black Or White that may define Jackson’s career. In another of Jackson’s expensively animated video promo’s (another Thriller innovation), the now long-tressed and clownishly pale singer, proudly informed a global audience how race was no longer important. The reclusive singer, exiled to his Neverland ranch, was ushering, for our collective benefit, in a new age of brotherhood and understanding, newly considerate of race, creed, or religion.

Except it wasn’t. If anything, Jackson’s increasingly ghostly visage (a skin pigmentation problem, he informed Oprah Winfrey) implied directly the opposite. In the higher stratosphere of Jackson’s success, there were few peers. Like Elvis Presley, he found himself relatively alone, and those that were at his level of wealth were almost certainly not black. It was as though the man in the mirror had found the contradictions of his success written in the shade of his skin.

After the various accusations and out-of-court settlements to mar the singer’s life since (and the veracities or falsehoods are decidedly beyond the remit of this article), Jackson’s subsequent output has spoken of a creatively nullified artist, at turns paranoiac and messianic (memorably remonstrated to by Jarvis Cocker). To the new fans, the siege mentality of Jackson PLC no doubt has its own clubby, inclusive attraction.

To the rest of the world though, the Essential Michael Jackson demands a question mark. R&B pioneer Missy Elliott is still a passionate advocate, and his mirror-ball obsessiveness infects all funky white-boys from Justin Timberlake and Jamie Liddell, while provoking endless spite from rap big mouth Eminem. Sony’s cash-in aside, the essential Michael Jackson is public domain, and is therefore as malleable as we want him to be. But just like the paparazzi fatally chasing an estranged and indulged princess down a Parisian underpass, the demands of an ever-enquiring public can have tragic consequences.

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Michael Jackson: Essential?