Love, Listen, Loathe Michael Jackson

Posted by Jacqueline

At the commencement, I have to make it clear I will not discuss any of Michael’s controversies – just his music. Sorry to disappoint.

In my opinion, Michael Jackson is the greatest Pop icon of our time, and the only artist who can compare in longevity, quality of back catalogue or that (apparently laudable) chameleon-factor is Madonna – but I don’t LIKE Madonna. Jacko however, has been a guilty pleasure for a long time, as underneath my gnarly metal facade is a disco loving, groovesome, funk soul brother. And if you find that terminology offensive, take it up with Fatboy Slim.

Let’s look at Jackson’s career. Starting out as the youngest, bestest member of the Jackson 5 at the age of SIX, he made his solo debut at the age of thirteen in 1971 and in the ensuing 38 years produced ten solo records, some of which go down as the most influential and certainly the best selling in modern music history.

While the Jackson 5 came storming out the gates, their momentum waned, and it took Jackson separating himself from the familial group to find his own niche. Teaming up with long term producer Quincy Jones, not to mention a pantheon of top notch songwriters (Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder) he produced the Off The Wall record, which was actually his FIFTH solo record, but the first outside ‘the Jacksons’ franchise. A stunningly realised piece of disco-pop, it wasn’t even a hint of what was to come…

Jackson’s next record was an oft-overlooked release called Thriller. I as only one year old when this album came out, but these songs became the background-radiation soundtrack to my youth, in a way I only appreciated when I was much older.

“Thriller” itself was arguably the single of the 80s, and solidified Jackson as a cross-over star for mainstream (white) audiences and confirmed the pre-eminence of the music video as one of the prime media for popularising a musical artist – a medium which Michael would continue to excel in. Add to that Eddie Van Halen plays the guitar solo, it’s got ZOMBIES in it and that’s just a whole ice bath full of COOL.

Michael Jackson

At the commencement, I have to make it clear I will not discuss any of Michael’s controversies – just his music. Sorry to disappoint.

In my opinion, Michael Jackson is the greatest Pop icon of our time, and the only artist who can compare in longevity, quality of back catalogue or that (apparently laudable) chameleon-factor is Madonna – but I don’t LIKE Madonna. Jacko however, has been a guilty pleasure for a long time, as underneath my gnarly metal facade is a disco loving, groovesome, funk soul brother. And if you find that terminology offensive, take it up with Fatboy Slim.

Let’s look at Jackson’s career. Starting out as the youngest, bestest member of the Jackson 5 at the age of SIX, he made his solo debut at the age of thirteen in 1971 and in the ensuing 38 years produced ten solo records, some of which go down as the most influential and certainly the best selling in modern music history.

While the Jackson 5 came storming out the gates, their momentum waned, and it took Jackson separating himself from the familial group to find his own niche. Teaming up with long term producer Quincy Jones, not to mention a pantheon of top notch songwriters (Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder) he produced the Off The Wall record, which was actually his FIFTH solo record, but the first outside ‘the Jacksons’ franchise. A stunningly realised piece of disco-pop, it wasn’t even a hint of what was to come…

Jackson’s next record was an oft-overlooked release called Thriller. I as only one year old when this album came out, but these songs became the background-radiation soundtrack to my youth, in a way I only appreciated when I was much older.

“Thriller” itself was arguably the single of the 80s, and solidified Jackson as a cross-over star for mainstream (white) audiences and confirmed the pre-eminence of the music video as one of the prime media for popularising a musical artist – a medium which Michael would continue to excel in. Add to that Eddie Van Halen plays the guitar solo, it’s got ZOMBIES in it and that’s just a whole ice bath full of COOL.

That said, my personal favourites from the record are the ‘other’ singles “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” (Ok, there were four other hit singles from the album, but I think these three are enough to be going on with!) as they both rely on a solid musical groove and soulful singing and storytelling lyrics. They are the steak to Thriller’s sizzle. This is shown in recent years as both of these songs have been covered more than a few times, while “Thriller” is kinda untouchable (unless it’s by a formation dance team of Korean inmates…)

I seriously urge anyone to check out Chris Cornell’s acoustic version of “Billie Jean”, and the Fall Out Boy version of “Beat It is the best thing they’ve ever done. Which isn’t saying much, mind…

Jackson’s career would never be the same again as this record catapulted him to a level of fame previously only shared by Elvis & the Beatles (that’s why they are all together in this category.) Is it co-incidence that all the genuine controversy started around this time that he became the most famous, recognisable celebrity in the world? I don’t think so.

Michael’s next record produced less-sales, but is STILL one of the biggest selling records of all time, and has the distinction of having five singles top the Billboard 100 chart.

Unlike most modern popstars, who seem to have one decent single followed by two or three less-good ones, which rely on the fact that the artist is a star to sell them, the singles from Bad (and Jacko’s other records, in fairness) were wall to wall quality. Which modern popstar has released songs as good as “bad”, “Smooth Criminal”, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, and “Leave Me Alone” all in a row?

Almost DESPITE it’s memorable (for being fun, rather than especially good) cover by Alien Ant Farm, “Smoot Criminal” remains probably my personal favourite Jackson song..

I’m not such a big fan of the next stage in Jackson’s career as his albums become longer, more impenetrable and somewhat self-indulgent. For all the critical and commercial acclaim, I do NOT like “Black or White” considering the song to be quite dull and the message to be too blunt – it preaches to the choir, and will change no-ones racist attitudes – and somewhat hypocritical given Jacko’s body dysmorphic issues. Indeed the song I like best from Dangerous is the title track, which I loved when it came out (when I was ten.)

The ‘new’ portion of HIStory was better, with “You Are Not Alone”, “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Scream” some of the best pop music released in the nineties. Passionate, musically impressive and emotive, these songs showed that despite the increasing mediocrity of the industry Jackson had helped to form, he could still evolve, still produce something special.

For similar reasons to my dislike of “Black & White”, I’m not a fan of “Earth Song” – it’s just not that interesting or compelling as a song and the lyrical content is overly preachy, guilt-trippy and for an artist who has benefited from mass-consumer culture, somewhat hypocritical. These are small concerns.

I’ll round off Jackson’s career by saying the remix record Blood on the Dance Floor despite being one of Jackson’s weaker efforts is better than most pop music these days and songs like “Blood on the Dance Floor”, “Ghosts” and “Morphine” show that Jackson still had relevance and was still evolving as an artist even as court cases, illness and entropy overtook his career.

Michael Jackson is indisputably the biggest selling musician of all time, which is really saying something given the company I’ve placed him in this week. His influence from a musical perspective is oft overlooked, compared to his commercial and marketing achievements and especially his choreography but he should be considered one of the greatest composers and multi-instrumentalists of our time.

http://www.411mania.com/music/columns/134673/Love,-Listen,-Loathe-04.07.10:-Elvis-Presley,-Michael-Jackson,-the-Beatles.htm

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