Changing the path of music

July 1, 2009

Alexander Billet excavates the tremendous musical legacy that is often overshadowed by Michael Jackson's bizarre behavior.

THE LAST 15 years of Michael Jackson's life are almost enough to obscure the true greatness of this artist. We saw the handsome, charming pop star go through myriad plastic surgeries that made him look more like a latter-day Peter Pan. We saw the trappings of unprecedented fame manifested in beyond bizarre behavior--the kind for which "eccentric" seems a mild term.

And then, there are the child molestation scandals. The media were ready to somehow link his strange persona with his alleged sexual abuse of minors--few were willing to draw the same link to his own father's abuse.

It's almost enough to overshadow his legacy. Almost, but not quite. None of these are what Jackson is being remembered for as millions mourn his sudden passing the world over. They aren't the reasons that we see footage of people breaking down in sobs of grief at news of his death. We are hearing condolences coming not just from musical icons like Madonna and Paul McCartney, but world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Hugo Chávez. Influence like that can't be rubbed out.

Michael Jackson, King of Pop
Michael Jackson, King of Pop

Over 40 years, Michael Jackson's voice and performance style reached a level of universality that nobody--and I mean nobody--has ever reached in music. One would be hard pressed to find a single soul who hasn't been touched by his recordings. That a video of Filipino prisoners performing the "Thriller" dance can become a Web phenomena is but one small testament to this.

Thirteen number one singles, 750 million albums sold worldwide. And if you're still skeptical, still searching for proof of Jackson's greatness, let me ask you: is there anyone out there who hasn't attempted the moonwalk? I rest my case.

Soul, disco, rock, pop, R&B and even hip-hop--Jackson left his mark on all of them. As his four-decade career progressed and evolved, Jackson frequently found himself setting the tone for popular music--even as he embodied its worst contradictions.

IN 1970, Motown Records was on top. The Jackson 5's first four singles cemented that status; all would reach number one on the Billboard pop singles. Though the African American group's massive success among listeners of all races revealed the growing maturity of a country under the sway of a vibrant Black Power movement (and label CEO Berry Gordy's cutthroat marketing), it was Jackson 5's youthful, almost bubblegum-innocence that attracted throngs of listeners.

At the center of that sound was young Michael. Barely 11 years old, the label nonetheless stated his age as 8 in an attempt to up the cuteness factor. Michael was recognized as a prodigy early on, his shining, scampish voice still somehow able to convey the depths of emotion that made songs like "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There" more than dime-a-dozen love songs.

As the Jackson 5 rocketed up the charts and exposed the young quintet to overnight fame, Michael was being exposed to the first traumatic swipes of music industry tailoring. In 1993, he spoke frankly about his father Joe's emotional and physical abuse. Joe, himself a former musician, had guided the group in their early days and was so intent on the young group making it big that he would sit in a chair with a belt in his hand during rehearsals.

According to Michael, "If you didn't do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you." Busy recording and touring schedules meant that, in essence, Jackson had no youth of his own. Years later, Smokey Robinson would describe him as "an old soul in a boy's body."

Did Michael Jackson have his childhood stolen from him? Or did he just never grow up? Perhaps both? In any event, it's clear that the troubled man he was to become had its roots in his early grooming as a musical icon. The Jackson 5's influence waned as the 1970s progressed, amid label troubles and a changing musical landscape.

Even as the group declined, however, Michael's star continued to rise. His 1979 solo album Off the Wall indicated an uncanny savvy on the part of Jackson and his songwriting team. The glitzy Disco beats were underlaid with a pop sensibility that seemed to recognize the sound of the '70s was on the way out.

Off the Wall made history by becoming the first album to generate four top 10 hits, and it sold 20 million copies worldwide. However, Jackson felt the album hadn't made the impact he had hoped for, and aimed to go above and beyond on his next effort.

There is no doubt that his next album achieved this new level of impact. To date, Thriller has sold over 100 million copies--a staggering amount. Listening to it today, it's still a magnificent piece of work, incorporating rock, soul, funk and R&B into a seamless pastiche of musical perfection.

Thriller has become a touchstone of popular music. Any trend that took hold in the 1980s owes its existence to this album. The signature Eddie Van Halen riff on "Beat It" has become one of the most recognizable guitar parts in the world. And as the '80s drew pop into synthesized, syrupy waters, songs like "Billie Jean" showed that the music could still be gritty, muscular, even sinful.

And then, there was the title track itself. The 14-minute video for Thriller was more of a short film than anything else, and helped legitimize the music video as an art form. At its height, MTV aired "Thriller" twice an hour just to meet viewer demand, and the still-fledgling cable station was viewed in a whole new light.

It seems no exaggeration to say that, without Michael Jackson, MTV might not have survived. In broadening the scope of videos, Jackson also helped pave the way for other artists of color.

Prior to Thriller's release, many had publicly criticized MTV for not playing enough Black artists. When Jackson himself voiced concern, it provoked CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff to call the executives of MTV personally and declare, "I'm not going to give you any more videos, and I'm going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact that you don't want to play music by a Black guy."

MTV caved, and the rest is history. That a Black artist could become one of the most popular at the height of the Reagan '80s is truly something to behold. In one of the most surreal moments in music history, Reagan invited Jackson to the White House in 1984.

THERE IS a deeper contradiction at play, though. While Jackson blazed trails musically and socially, he was also being shaped into the ultimate cash cow. The music industry went through a massive expansion in the '80s, and for much of that time, Jackson became its main figurehead.

It's no coincidence then, that the '80s were the decade that saw the first public glimpses of Jackson's eccentric and weird behavior. Thriller had launched him into the exclusive realm of superstardom. His lawyer, John Branca, bragged that he had secured the highest royalty rate ever for Jackson, at approximately $2 per album. This not only meant that the artist was now a multimillionaire, but that he lived in an un-poppable bubble.

Jackson started surrounding himself with people who, as some have said, "wouldn't say no to him." He went on million-dollar shopping sprees. He bought a chimp named Bubbles. Rumors circulated of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and attempting to buy the Elephant Man's bones. Both were untrue, but the fact that he circulated these rumors himself highlighted his increasing disconnect from any kind of reality.

It was also at this time that Jackson's skin tone started noticeably lightening. Up until the '80s, his skin had been a medium-brown hue. Some have speculated that he was bleaching his skin, the result of a deeply internalized racism. The actual reason for this, according to spokespeople, was Jackson's diagnosis of vitiligo, and he needed to balance out his splotchy skin tone with lighter makeup.

Regardless, one can't deny that the singer was undergoing significant physical changes. Jackson began to express desire for a "dancer's body," and began noticeably losing weight. Medical professionals publicly stated that he was suffering from anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder.

As pop was dethroned by grunge and hip-hop in the '90s, and as Jackson's own life became increasingly mired in scandal, he struggled to stay on the cutting edge of music. This didn't stop him from selling millions of albums or booking the biggest stadiums worldwide. It did, however, highlight his growing reclusiveness and exhaustion.

As the 21st century dawned, his weakened voice was increasingly manipulated by autotune and his performances became more infrequent to spare his exhausted body. By the time Jackson was called into court for a second child molestation case in 2003, many former fans had tossed in the towel on him.

It's eerily symbolic that Jackson passes away amidst crushing debt as the world descends deeper into the worst economic crisis in several decades. It's also tragic, given that pop music is finally becoming interesting again for the first time in a decade. Whether the long string of shows he had recently booked in London would have helped catapult Jackson back to the top is a question that will never be answered.

There is one thing that is indisputable however: there will never be another artist who changes the path of music quite the way that Michael Jackson did. He widened the horizons of popular music to an immeasurable degree, and changed its trajectory forever. No matter what we may think of him as a person, we cannot separate him from the sick world that brought him up. We also cannot ignore that through his music, he changed that world for the better--if only a little bit.

First published at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

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