The Michael Jackson Phenomenon was such that I could tolerate him on my parents’ turntable and sheer radio ubiquity between 1983 and 1984 (and again in 1987-1988) without being much of a fan. He was something pleasant you didn’t think much about, like making a Christmas list. During school Halloween costume contests in those years, teachers handed out vinyl copies of Off The Wall and Thriller as prizes. By the time Captain EO premiered in fall ’86, he was a joke — we all knew about the Grammy menage a trois with Bo Derek and Webster, Bubbles the Python, the sudden lightening of his pigment. The movie was a sensation, and a laughing stock; the audience snickered through MJ’s strutting and snarling (which presaged the “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” videos by a year). No longer was his preening tolerable. Maybe it never was, and we believed the fiction for too many years. Like the Beatles in India, who wore bad clothes, stuck daisies in their hair, and endured an intolerable bore and fraud like the Maharishi, his peccadilloes made him the best kind of superstar: he acted like an errant cousin whom you love anyway.
Michael Jackson taught me how to listen to music: the indivisibility of rhythm and vocals, the sublimation of horrible childhood memories and grotesque fantasies into disco. He was also my first exposure to the phenomenon of loving a performer who went through periods of being very uncool and eventually batshit and possibly a pedophile. No more serendipitous event in modern pop music exists than the moment when a Seattle band released an album called Nevermind knocked Dangerous off the top of the Billboard album chart in early ’92. I know it’s an obvious paradigmatic moment beloved by Anthony De Curtis types, but it’s true: in my senior year of high school, the mass popularity of Nirvana confirmed what we’d suspected since Bad. It didn’t matter that he was releasing singles like “Jam” and “In The Closet,” which subsume the hard-diamond beats of New Jack Swing to Jackson’s weird, one-of-a-kind rhythmic savvy and melodic finesse into the slammingest music of his career; his moment had passed, although he would continue to find chart success, like Clint Eastwood movies, as a freak show good for a laugh, with the added benefit of an MTV world premiere.
As the pundits pundit and the obit writers exploit the King of Pop and Jacko nomenclature, they’re going to overlook what an amazing songwriter and producer Jackson became. With a tip of the hat and a deep bow to Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Rod Temperton, and other collaborators, it’s quite obvious that even a facile acquaintance with Jackson’s songs proves that no one else could have sung or written them. I don’t know whether he played any instruments, but listening to the demos included on the Thriller re-release a few years ago, especially “Billie Jean,” I was struck by how closely his melodies hewed to his sense of rhythm; it’s like he wrote songs to his dancing, sung them to the syncopation of his feet (his inimitable hiccups and quick draws of breath almost scanned like verses). Better writers have studied Thriller, which is why I’m focusing on Dangerous. Jackson always performed as if he had something to prove; maybe he imagined his father, the horrible svengali Joe Jackson, watching him from the audience. But Dangerous sounds like the work of a man (yes) who felt the walls tumbling down. Unlike Prince during this period, his music evinces no insecurities about hip-hop or a shift in popular taste. He’s challenged, not threatened. Something nibbles away at him, though — he expands the paranoia in “Billie Jean” and “Leave Me Alone” to their exponential limits in “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” “In The Closet” (with its creepy, knowing chorus), and “Jam.” It’s perfect sense that the apologia/credo “Black or White” (which has aged better than you remember) features Slash playing power chords and pistonbeats that Bell Biv Devoe would sell their misogyny for; instead of an “Ebony and Ivory”-esque plaint for brotherhood, he’s selling racial transcendence to his mass audience as if he thought the limpid grace of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” demanded an answer commensurate with the times and the awful will of an artist who changed his face and color for — what exactly?
The beats only got sparer and stranger as the line between the pop star attempt’s to embrace his mass audience for self-actualization and moneyed isolation vanished like his blackness: in Jackson’s soul “You Are Not Alone” fought “Leave Me Alone” for control. “They Don’t Really Care About Us” has a go-on-I-dare-you taunting quality that reminds me a little of the “reverse racism” self-pity in which certain segments of talk radio still traffic. And Blood on the Dance Floor‘s “Morphine” — well, this is the pop/R&B world equivalent of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” I wish Eric Weisbard’s original SPIN review was posted somewhere; it nails the lunacy of a track whose splintered, staccato drum programs cut into the filthiest, most confessional lyrics of Jackson’s career, with singing to match. There’s even a bizarre, virtually a cappella section in which the singer moans about his lover getting hooked on Demerol. His audience never abandoned him; he just assumed, with a megalomaniac’s hubris, that they’d accept his music’s weirdness on his terms. When they didn’t, he resorted to videos with faded pop culture icons like Marlon Brando for support. I never bought Invincible, but the craft of “Butterflies” suggested that a comeback was his for the asking if he didn’t try so damn hard.
So, rest in peace, Michael. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but for a life as tormented as yours, death is peace enough.