July 1, 2009

The Real Reasons Why Michael Jackson Was Important

Everyone from my generation remembers where they were when certain events occurred. JFK was shot before we were born. We were toddlers for the moon landing and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. We were a little older when Elvis Presley and John Lennon passed, but we missed seeing them in their primes and didn't fully understand their significance and their impact on the culture until later. We were grownups when Princess Diana and JFK Jr. died tragically, and yes, that was sad. But for my generation, the events we remember most... the surreal moments... the ones that touched us to core... the ones that stopped time... the Challenger explosion, OJ, 9-11... and now this... Michael Jackson's death.

Of all the landmark events mentioned, Elvis' death best approximates what my generation is experiencing with the death of Michael Jackson. In many ways, the two events are startling similar. Two individuals that were immensely talented singers and performers, but who were also transcendent artists that became absolute phenomenons. Each branched out beyond the world of music to make their marks in television, movies and, in Jackson's case, music videos. Each saw their careers dip sharply in their later years. Sadly, each contributed to their own self destruction through excess, drug abuse, and increasingly eccentric behavior. Lastly, Elvis and Michael both died unexpectedly, and at the time of their deaths, left a legacy as the best-selling artist of the rock era and the greatest entertainer of all time.

I'm not going to go on and on and provide a retrospective on Jackson's life and career. (There're a hundred websites and TV programs that have been and will continue to do that over the next several days and weeks.) Instead, I'm blogging this largely for the young people out there, many of whom, I suspect, don't fully understand the impact Michael had on music and our popular culture. The same way my generation couldn't fully understand Elvis' impact, anyone under the age of 30 probably doesn't understand Michael's.

To correct this, I won't rehash the usual list of stats and achievements (this many million albums sold, this many number one hits, that many Grammys.) Again, I'll leave that to others. Truth be told, there've been a lot of artists who have reached the top, sold millions, won countless awards, and will be long-remembered. But Jackson's uniqueness, the hows and the whys of his revolutionizing of the music world, the way he and his music uniquely resonated with Americans and others all over the world, and the ways in which he continuously broke new ground during his career -- that's what needs to be underscored right now.

The first thing that needs to be understood, is that the word I mentioned earlier, "phenomenon", is not one to use lightly. As far as the music world is concerned, Spice Girls', and New Kids On The Block tours broke box office records; Bruce Springsteen was on cover of both Time and Newsweek; Mariah Carey signed a record-breaking $80 million dollar recording contract. But when it comes to actual phenomenons, there was Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson.

So how did these phenomenons come to be? Well, Elvis was at the forefront of popular music's defining movement of the 20th century -- rock and roll. In the mid and late 50s, Elvis succeeded in rising above his contemporaries and it was HIS voice and face that became synonymous with the rock and roll style that would come to dominate American popular music.

The Beatles were a little different. One of the definitions of phenomenon is "an unsually significant, often unaccountable occurrence." The key word in this instance is "unaccountable". In no way am I disparaging the band or dismissing their talent (I am in fact, a HUGE Beatles fan.) But the Beatles phenomenon began, in many ways, as case of "right time, right place", as the charismatic group inexplicably captured the imaginations of Germans in Hamburg, their fellow Brits, and finally Americans.

The Michael Jackson phenomenon has similarities to both Elvis' and the Fab Four's. Jackson came along at a time when the new medium of music video was fundamentally changing the way artists were performing, connecting with their fans, defining their images, and marketing themselves and their music. Many of the top acts of the time (Springsteen, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne) as talented as they were, struggled with how to leverage this new medium to its fullest. But Jackson's natural ability and creativity as a singer, dancer and performer gave him the total package and he alone emerged as the single greatest artist of the MTV era (1981-1991).

Indeed, Jackson practically invented the music video, taking it from its primitive beginnings as simple filmed live or studio performances (sometimes enhanced with cheesy special effects) to expressionistic narratives with creative cinematography and choreography. Jackson pioneered the "performer out front with backup dancers" style of video, which became the paradigm for many other artists from the eighties (Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefied"), nineties (Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation"), into the new millineum (Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again"), and even today (Beyonce's "Single Ladies".) Also with regard to music videos, Jackson's "Billie Jean" (along with Prince's "1999" and Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue") were the first videos by black artists to be played on MTV.

A gifted dancer from birth, Jackson enhanced this natural ability by adding in double and triple James Brown-like spins, as well as pops, locks and moonwalks he borrowed from 80s b-boys.

As a result of all this, Jackson forever raised the bar for what we could expect from artists in concert. Singing AND dancing became much more of an expectation, and Michael represented the zenith of the multi-talented performer, paving the way for the likes of Madonna, Paula Abdul, MC Hammer, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Shakira, and countless others.

Right around the same time that MTV and music videos were taking hold, radio was also changing. FM had recently surpassed AM as the dominant band, and stations were still scrambling to define their formats and find their niche among listeners. Radio though, was still very much segregated. As far fetched as it may seem now, the fact is that right until the early eighties, there was often a considerable gulf between the musical preferences of whites and blacks. "White music" and "black music" and "white radio stations" and "black radio stations" were often mutually exclusive. This not to say that black artists weren't played on white radio (Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and others certainly were) but as he did with MTV, Michael Jackson, moreso than any other, was the artist that contributed most to completely erasing that color line. Tracks from his debut solo album, Off the Wall dominated Top 40 stations. In an era when the public was railing against disco, Jackson was able to blend it with elements of other traditionally black music (pulsing r&b, horn-driven funk, and lush Philly Soul) and inject it with a pop sensibility that appealed to a wider (and "whiter") cross section of listeners. Radio stations, which typically leak singles out 6 to 8 weeks apart, took Off the Wall and ran with it, and "Rock With You", "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough", "She's Out of My Life", and the album's title track received airplay simultaneously. Tracks from 1982's Thriller and 1987's Bad would later get the same treatment.

Songwriting ability, mellifluous voice, and all other talent aside, like The Beatles, there was also something undefineable about Michael Jackson. Despite his shyness, he was tremendously charismatic. Even from his earliest beginnings, when he was signed (along with his brothers) to Motown as a ten year old, Suzanne DePasse, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy, and others at the label agreed that the group had talent, but Michael had "it."

Jackson was long considered a prodigy, but by the time he was twenty-one, he would exceed everyone's expectations by breaking free from both his brothers and Motown and proving himself one of the best voices and creative forces in the business. EVERYONE recognized this, even his peers, the most famous names in music. During the last three decades of the 20th century, many of the top singers (Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Lionel Richie, The Winans, Stevie Wonder, Heavy D., James Ingram, Boyz II Men), producers (Quincy Jones, Bill Bottrell, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dallas Austin, David Foster), and studio musicians (Rod Temperton, Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson, Toto's Steve Lukather and Steve and Jeff Porcaro) collaborated with Michael on projects. And when Michael enlisted axemen Eddie Van Halen and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol's guitarist) to play on "Beat It" and "Dirty Diana", respectively, many fans were introduced to hard rock/metal guitar licks for the very first time.

Pop culture figures outside the music world also teamed with Michael on various projects. He shot videos with Marlon Brando, Michael Jordan, Naomi Campbell, Eddie Murphy, Martin Scorcese and John Landis; made movies with Academy Award winners Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas; performed onstage with Diana Ross, Cher, and James Brown; and launched the careers of Siedah Garrett and Sheryl Crow (whose first big break was as a backup singer on the Bad tour.) Little sister Janet owes a debt to Michael as well. Her career was floundering (with a mediocre debut album and an even less successful sophmore effort) until the fallout from Michael's fame helped refocus attention on her and her Control album.

As I suggested in a previous blog post, it's been said that there often comes a time when a man meets his moment. For Michael, that moment was at the Motown 25 TV Special, where he reunited with his brothers onstage for the first time in eight years, and then brought the house down with a solo performance of "Billie Jean." Though the show included performances by legends like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes, all anyone could talk about for the next several days was Michael. It was this performance that saw Michael's instantaneous ascension into the pantheon of not just pop music but pop culture as a whole.

It's hard to deny that Michael was an icon of the highest magnitude. He had the highest selling album of all time and was featured in his own animated TV series. He starred in his own prime time variety show and had Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire publicly marvel at his dancing ability. He was honored by President Reagan at the White House and guest voiced on The Simpsons. And, lest we forget, Michael was also one of the organizers and creative forces behind U.S.A. for Africa and co-writer of "We Are the World". Indeed, Michael contributed so much time and money to charities and humanitarian causes that the Guiness Book of World Records honored him as the "Most Charitable Pop Star of All Time."

For the last week, I've listened to the MJ tributes on various radio stations and watched the retrospectives on BET, MTV, and VH1. What sticks out to me and offers the most consolation for this loss is the stunning amount of music Michael left behind. I've had Jackson's music on vinyl, cassette, and digitally for years, yet still, I'm staggered by both the volume and quality of the music he produced with the Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and on his own. The worst tracks on Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous, are measurably better than most of the cuts by many of today's most popular rock, r&b and hip-hop artists (and I'm sorry, but that's FACT not opinion...)

And it's great that Michael is being shown so much love. It seems very few are remembering the negative about him, including those disturbing accusations of child molestation. I, like most, certainly haven't forgotten about that, or the fact that in this, the age of steroids, philandering politicians, and rampant corporate corruption, you simply can't believe anyone anymore. (In light of the prevailing evidence, the claims made against Michael may very well be much more than just "allegations.")

We also (regrettably) have to acknowledge, the way he destroyed his body with cosmetic surgery. (It's difficult for me to even look at pictures of him in his later years.) We all remember the sham of a marriage to Lisa Marie Presley (which seemed half a clumsy attempt at damage control, and half publicity stunt) and all those increasingly disturbing eccentricities -- from the elephant man's bones, to dangling his baby over the balcony.

But through all of this, what we'll remember most about Michael Jackson is his music, his amazing voice, and all the good memories... J5... Motown... The Ed Sullivan Show... "I Want You Back"... "I'll Be There"... the giant 'fro... dancing the robot... The Jacksons... The "Thriller" video... the glove... the moonwalk... and on and on...

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