Monday, September 13, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 73 - Michael Jackson

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I have a vague memory of a time when Michael Jackson was known primarily as a musician. In the wake of Neverland Ranch, the lawsuits, the television specials, the "Wacko Jacko" moniker, the rumors about purchasing the Beatles catalog (true) and the Elephant Man's corpse (false), the giant statue floating down the middle of Thames, to look back to a time when Jackson was simply a musician seems almost quaint. In many ways, Jackson personified the archetype of "public figure"; at some point, his image lapped his actual musical career, and from then on it was completely out of his control.

Which is a shame, because Michael Jackson is actually a pretty good musician. He has a great voice, he's a great dancer, and has a pretty good instinct for what sort of music is exciting (even "thrilling"!) to listen to. But it's clear that Jackson's ambitions, for whatever reason, far extended making mere music. Jackson liked to make himself an event, and, for better or for worse, suddenly everything about Jackson became wrapped up in spectacle. But Americans are suckers for a good redemption story, so it's a shame Jackson had to die just before his final spectacle - the farewell tour - could come to a conclusion.

Looking back at the music, and especially the music videos, it's impressive how well-orchestrated everything is. Jackson's career may have been bloated and larger-than-life but, for at least a decade, such bloat was deliberate, and one got the feeling that Jackson was very good at planning this sort of thing. Just like the vocal hiccups that punctuate his songs, the small shudders that make up his dancing, Jackson excelled at this false sincerity - cold, calculated maneuvers that nonetheless gave off the vibe of spontaneity. Jackson must have spent hundreds of hours perfecting the moonwalk dance, but watching him break it out on stage was like watching a man who had just discovered he had this sort of talent. 

Even after his death, Michael Jackson's shadow looms over modern pop in hundreds of ways. It's as if his massive persona has fractured and trickled into different stars - singers like Lady GaGa have continued his attention-seeking identity, while Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears ensure that the public still has a bloodlust for those figures who self-destruct in front of our eyes. 

Michael Jackson can symbolize the decadence and the self-aggrandization of the music industry, as a figure who painted himself as a star first and a musician second. But, strangely enough, there were a few times this week while watching Jackson perform where I wondered if he almost didn't live up to the absurd hype. 

Hence, the picture I chose for this week is not Michael Jackson as a living breathing human being. He hasn't been perceived that way in decades, if he ever was. Instead, we have the Jackson in military regalia, with all the hubris of a messiah figure, encased in stone and never changing, looking over the world with clenched fists and a sharp jaw. Completely over-the-top, tacky yet somehow smooth, a spectacle within a spectacle, an imposing figure you can't escape: for better or for worse, these arrogant Michael Jackson statues perhaps best sum up his legacy.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Michael Jackson

MY LISTENING: I listened to Thriller (1982) every day this week. I also listened to Off the Wall (1979) and Bad (1987) twice, and Dangerous (1991) once. 

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Michael Jackson has been sort of inescapable in my lifetime - "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Thriller" were all songs I knew from childhood, even if I was more familiar with Weird Al's parody "Eat It." I do remember watching the "Thriller" music video on MTV around Halloween with my family, and being suitably impressed. 


I don't think I was prepared for how catchy Michael Jackson's songs are. "Billie Jean" is the prime example of this - a slowly building funk that fixes itself in your head and doesn't let go. Jackson knows how to craft a monster single. Thriller contains the bulk of the ones I recognized right away - "Beat It" has that monster guitar riff that likewise stays in your head, and I'm beginning to think that the party-heavy "Wanna Be Startin' Something" is the best song on the album, especially with its fiery concluding chorus of "Mama-say mama-sa ma ma ku sa." Do I know what that means? No, but its been running through my head all week. 

And Jackson can sing, whether it be the funky dance hits listed above, or the schmaltzy but still sort of enjoyable ballad "Human Nature." Maybe people knew that he was talented, but I was raised in the generation that knows Michael Jackson primarily as a child molestation joke, so this is kind of new to me. 

Off the Wall is a funkier album that somehow manages to sound fresh despite the fact that it's coated in late seventies disco fever. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" is a great example of Jackson's versatile voice featured over a criminally danceable beat. And, in spite of myself, I really like the synthesized streets over the disco funk in "Get On The Floor." Disco gets a bad rap today, but Off the Wall makes a strong case for the best sides of it. 

Generally, I think, the funkier Michael Jackson is, the more I liked him. While his saccharine ballads can be tolerable, I'd rather listen to his tracks that are full of fast-paced energy, that he somehow manages to convey through his distinctive voice. So I'll take "Bad" and "Smooth Criminal" over his slower, more heartfelt pieces. 


As implied above, there's a lot of Jackson that sounds like a byproduct of the 1980s that's better left in that era. Even the legendary Thriller isn't immune from this kitsch - "The Girl is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney, tempted me more and more to skip the track each time it popped up this week. The soft, spoken gibes between Jackson and McCartney at the end are the soul of kitsch. 

Speaking of kitsch, Thriller also has Vincent Price's monologue over the title track, a track which I've decided is not very fun without the corresponding music video. Do we need these ghoulish sound effects to start the song? Then there's "Speed Demon," a song that begins with revving engines and possibly the most forgettable thing that Jackson ever made in the eighties. 

That's one of the problems I had with Jackson - despite his reputation for the best-selling album of all time, there's not a single album of his that doesn't fall prey to filler. His singles are justly famous, but there's certainly no hidden gems to be found. Thriller has "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady in My Life," both which read more like standard eighties pop than anything particularly memorable. Bad's "Liberian Girl" is in a similar category. 

Finally, there's the strange problem that the newer the Michael Jackson, the more dated it sounds. Off the Wall sounds fresh despite its disco heritage, Thriller has but a few missteps, Bad sounds more like a mix of traditional eighties synthpop and power ballads than anything original, and Dangerous, though a product of the nineties, has songs like "Can't Let Her Get Away" whose hip-hop type beat sounds far more dated than a lot of his older stuff. The fact that Dangerous also contains a song from the Free Willy soundtrack doesn't help.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Of course, there's the Golden Age of the Jackson 5, who produced a bunch of albums throughout the sixties and seventies. In additional to Michael Jackson's early solo albums as a child, there's also HIStory (1995) and Invincible (2001). And I heard that the This Is It documentary about the comeback concert that was in the works when Jackson died is actually pretty entertaining as well.


BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Wanna Be Startin' Something," which you've probably heard, but for some reason it never seems to be included in the Top Tier of Jackson songs. It should be.