Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Once more for Michael

I was never that big a fan of Michael Jackson, post-1960s, because, at the time that he and Quincy Jones (and the mind-boggling virtuosi who made up Q's session crew) were redefining the sound of 1980s pop music, I was listening to other music that I thought grooved harder and was about six times funkier: from Toots & the Maytals to Juluka to the Neville Brothers. And the fey nature of Michael's personality even then--the degree to which his stage presentations, like Baroque opera, were more about a deeply Mannerist abstraction of the traditions of black music than "the thing itself"--left me cold (best line in Chris Rock's "Blacker than Ever" special: "remember those arguments we used to have in the '80s about who was better, Prince or Michael Jackson?" [beat] "Well, Prince *won*!"). I thought then and still think that Prince Rogers Nelson was about six times as creative a genius, a far better singer, as good a dancer, and a WAY more commanding musical imagination.

But there were a couple of things you had to give Michael. He was there first. And maybe some part of the transcendence that he was able to create and evoke onstage for his audiences made it that much harder for him to come back to anything resembling anybody else's Earth.

So, herewith a few defining moments:

the pop perfection of "I Want You Back," when the Motown rhythm section, the compositional genius of The Corporation, and the astonishing invention of Wilton Felder's contrapuntal bass line all came together as if fore-ordained;

the titanic guitar solo in "Beat It", where, in one invitation and a 30 second musical interlude, Michael and Eddie Van Halen between them (and with a little help from the great Aerosmith/Run D.M.C. "Walk This Way") smashed down the Berlin Wall that fascist white radio programmers had tried to erect between black and white musics;

the creepy "Thriller", which I never really liked as a piece of music, and whose portentiously-anticipated "long-form video" was maybe the strongest, earliest hint I got of just how weird, unsettling, and potentially abusive Michael's child-man persona could be; you wanted to say "Jesus, Michael, is that what's inside your head? Is that cadaverous, angry, threatening Zombie-of-the-Undead central character how you actually see yourself?" And, of course, it's what he *became* in the long sad drug-fuddled twilight of the following two decades. One of the great tragedies of Michael Jackson's life--and the lives he fucked up around him--is that the early abuse by his father and by the record business turned him *into* the zombie that he warned us, in "Thriller", was inside him;

and finally, a late flowering, long after he'd begun the final downhill slide:

the beautiful, joyously-retro "The Way You Make Me Feel," whose boy-girl, innocent sexuality was light years away from Michael's own twisted psyche, but whose music and video both reached back to the most beautiful aspects of Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and Michael's own, momentarily-happier past.

1 comment:

masbrow said...

I agree with a lot of your very thoughtful pionts. I've been hearing the phrase "musical genius" thrown around, and it really made me think--of course Jackson was a very good singer and musician, but I think if you could call him a genius, it would apply more in terms of showmanship, style and dance than purely in music. That combined with a somewhat arbitrary celebrity accounts for his unique and important influence on the popular culture. Thanks for writing!