Michael Jackson: My Memories, Experiences and a Critical Evaluation of the Prospect of his Forward Legacy
[I realize Michael Jackson is a much beloved figure; I'm not looking to make enemies here, particularly among friends who still love him. But I felt the need to speak out in this instance, and the usual outlets not being available to me I chose to put it here. DO NOT READ if you feel you will be upset or offended by my critical views on Micheal Jackson.-UD]Part I: Timeline
The Jackson Five spring onto the scene: we first hear them on radio. The very first thing that strikes my family about them is that the littlest kid sings so well, is so energetic and personable – “C’mon girl!... I love you!” Of the first Jackson Five songs, I like “The Love You Save” the best, despite it’s retarded title that I can never remember – some other kids I know insist that the title is actually “Love You Say” and will fight to defend the notion. “A.B.C.” follows, and it’s even a bigger hit; I get tired of it faster. I never liked “I’ll Be There,” being a little too sentimental for my tastes – the girls, though, are crazy about it.
The Jackson 5ive animated kids show debuts, and it’s a big deal among the kids in my school. Kids are getting into fights over whom among them are most like Michael; they attempt to replicate his trademark spins, get tangled up, fall sometimes – look ridiculous.
By this time I’m already getting burnt out on the Jackson Five. I am becoming versed in early rock n roll and I’m familiar with some of the songs they are covering, like “Daddy’s Home” and “Rockin’ Robin.” “Rockin’ Robin” is just played to death on the radio; after awhile it was like you couldn’t escape it. Then radio rediscovered the Bobby Day original and played that to death also.
“Ben” also made it’s debut as well; I’ve never liked the song, thinking it was creepy from the first time I heard it.
I saw the Jackson Five perform “Dancing Machine” on Soul Train; I liked both the robot dance and the song. And that was the last thought I had of Michael or The Jackson Five for many years. The Ohio Players, Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and other soul groups were simply more to my tastes.
I kind of liked some of the things from “Off the Wall,” and read an interview with Michael where he stated that Diana Ross “has always been a mother, a lover and a friend to me.” I remember thinking, “What the fu-? That doesn’t sound like a heathy relationship to have with any woman.” He concluded the interview by saying “Everything just keeps getting better and better…”
I don’t like anything on “Thriller.” I didn’t like the videos either; they are too over the top for me. The music is undeniably catchy, but too commercial and, in my view, not in the least sincere. Greg Fernandez has recently reminded me that at about this time I was billing my band -- the ever-beleagured 11,000 Switches -- as the “Michael Jacksons of Cincinnnati Punk.” That HAD to be a joke.
“Say Say Say,” a collaboration between Jackson and McCartney, is released, and I really like the song. It’s a genuine return to form for Macca, whom I felt lost in the wildnerness for some time, and Jackson turned in his usual performance, which in this case was good. The two elements meshed well in a way that Macca’s flatulent, syncophantic collaboration with Stevie Wonder, “Ebony and Ivory” did not.
The Jacksons appear on The Jerry Lewis Telethon, via a live feed from a concert appearance. When the feed kicks in, it starts with 30 seconds of the most horrendous, distorted, unintelligible TV sound I’ve ever heard. Then the stage goes black, and stays that way for several minutes. Finally a key light picks up Michael; a keyboard begins the opening to “Ben,” again horribly distorted, with feedback squawking all over the place. Michael begins to say, “This is… this is… a song that is very important to me…” and then suddenly gets very angry, saying “Stop! Stop! You’ve gotta give me something better than this…” Then the feed broke off. Cut to Jerry Lewis, with a bland expression on his face, saying “Well, obviously they’re having some technical difficulties out there, so we will return to the Jacksons when they get it all sorted out.” But the Telethon never returns to the feed.
While filming a Pepsi commercial, Michael catches his hair on fire. Just three days later he makes a public appearance at an award ceremony in which the only award is given to Michael Jackson, by Michael Jackson, for being Michael Jackson. As he enters in a particularly flamboyant silver costume, the announcer calls out, “MICHAEL JACKSON – the greatest entertainer in the history of the worlllllldddddd!!!”
Jackson is obviously injured, and his hairline is a mess, with burn marks plainly visible. The whole thing makes me think of the Emperor Nero.
“We Are the World.” Oh God, will I ever get away from this song, I’m thinking. It’s everywhere – on radio, in television commercials, on television, all the time, the video constantly played on various shows. In the winter, we’re all pretty sick with colds, and Nolan Benz devises a parody – “We have a colllllld, we have a big collllllld –“
The insincerity factor of the song – as least how I perceive it – is just completely over the top for me, and I don’t care at all for the bland arrangement and bathetic melody.
Michael Jackson purchases the ATV Music catalogue, which contains 251 Beatles songs, outbidding Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. At the time, I remember being furious with him and writing an angry poem about it, which I thankfully managed to lose. But it was a sound business decision which, had he followed it up with others and kept his spending in check, might have helped to prevent the problems that led to his early death.
I’m working at Record Theater in Norwood. At some point, Motown put out a disc of old Michael Jackson tunes onto a special edition that contains a cheap white Michael Jackson glove with glitter paint and sequins on it. It was kind of expensive too, but intended for the kids. Our store manager ordered a ton of them, but it stiffed, and months and months have gone by and we’re still stuck with them. We are using them to fill out weak sections in the bins, as packing material for returns.
“Bad,” I feel, is aptly titled, though in retrospect it is a good deal better than what followed. He would never rise again above this level; I really believe that he hit a creative wall not long after Thriller and that producing new material just became increasingly more difficult for him as the years went on. The video for “Leave Me Alone” is really shocking to me – it seemed like he was making fun of himself, yet prepossesed with himself too, and in an unhealthy way; clearly unable to separate the public Michael Jackson from the private one.
According to Jackson’s accountants, this is when he began to hemmorage cash, a downward cycle that he was never able to regain control of.
Michael Jackson does halftime at the Super Bowl in a performance I find highly shocking; it’s just like a Nazi rally.
The miniseries The Jacksons, co-produced by Jermaine Jackson, plays on TV. I find it excellent, and I feel that Michael Jackson’s characterization more or less makes clear that Michael is a deeply troubled person, someone who was “Anders als die Andern” – apart from others.
Michael Jackson appears in an interview along with Lisa Marie Presley, right after the first investigation into his conduct with children is broken off after Jackson paid a hefty settlement. Lisa Marie is trying to defend him, but he undoes all of her good work through his contentious answers and pugnacious attitude. At one point he tells the interviewer that he is not going to comply with the suggestion of the court to stay away from children, as they have no right to tell him not to be with children, as his charitable foundations do so much good for them. I watched in utter disbelief; I was like thinking, “Why doesn’t he just say that he will comply with the court’s suggestion, even if he doesn’t mean it?”
The release of HIStory is celebrated at the Tower Records on Sunset with the erection of a 55-foot statue of Michael Jackson in the parking lot. It almost doesn’t get built, as the height of the thing violates various LA City codes. Construction begins late and, as the result of another LA City Ordinance which prohibits construction within the city limits past midnight, is unveiled without its arms.
Jackson also brings Sony into 50 per cent of the ATV catalog, a decision he will eventually regret
Michael Jackson shops at the Virgin Megastore where I work. He is dressed as a homeless man, yet you know it’s Michael Jackson because he is the only homeless man in the world surrounded by a full-on security detail. They cordon off a 30-foot perimeter around him, and no one can shop (or work) in those areas in the store.
Micheal Jackson sues Sony and accuses Tommy Mottola – married to Mariah Carey at the time – of being a “racist.” Believe me, Tommy’s no angel, and if he had been he wouldn’t have been the top man at Sony. But this suit was utterly without merit, and was thrown out of court; it was merely Jackson trying to shake Sony down for money he thought due him. But it was money he had signed away in 1995.
The “baby dangling” incident, a reprehensible action for which no viable explanation is ever offered, occurs.
Jackson is forced to attest to an amazing number of things in the deposition for his second molestation-related conflict with Los Angeles’ legal system, including that he has a problem with substance abuse. Hardly anyone paid attention to it.
Earlier this year he was spotted in Bahrain, shopping, dressed as an Arabic woman. At his death, he is said to be more than 400 million dollars in debt.Part II: Weighing in on the current range of assessment about Michael Jackson’s achievements
Michael Jackson was the King of Pop: That was an honorific that Michael Jackson devised for himself, and it worked so well that there is confusion still about what it truly means, and what he achieved apart from being the “King of Pop.” Newscasters go forward with the idea of promoting Jackson in death as the greatest entertainer ever, but grope for words in defining, or even accepting, what that means or if it’s for real.
Michael Jackson first combined black and white musical styles: You’d have to go back to 1830 and guys like George Washington Dixon for that milestone. However, from a commercial perspective his particular blend of white pop with black soul was extremely effective. Unwittingly, he (and Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston -- he didn't do it alone) contributed to the swift demise of soul in the 1980s; if it hadn't been for rap there wouldn't have been need for a seperate R&B chart.
Michael Jackson invented Moonwalking: Moonwalking was a component within a style of what used to be called “eccentric dancing” that minstrels performed. It had been forgotten; Michael Jackson rediscovered it somehow and, I’ll admit, greatly improved on it. I didn’t see the “Motown 25” performance when it aired and only caught it when it aired on another show later; seeing it recently I realized many of the same moves are contained in a routine by a minstrel dancer in the film “After Seben” (1929), though Jackson’s take on them is far more up to date, smoother and better executed.
Michael Jackson integrated MTV: This is something that I think comes from the Rev. Al Sharpton. You can’t integrate something that’s not segregated, and MTV certainly never was.
Micheal Jackson made a major contribution to the cause of civil rights: This is a difficult one, and even Rev. Sharpton is struggling to define it, although he’d like to and I think he’s making a sincere stab at it. The suit against Sony, in which Sharpton was involved and he still feels had merit, was a total non-starter.
I think I’m the only one to say this so far, but Micheal’s image in the early post-Civil Rights years represented a major step in establishing a positive model for African-American children; if you were a white kid, you were at a major disadvantage in emulating him. Children all over the world idolized him, and as far as I know no African-American child ever had that kind of following before him. He did not, however, have to go through the rite of passage that Nat King Cole did to find mass acceptance, a process that took decades of refinement and mainly earned Cole accusations of Uncle Tomism from his fellow members in the NAACP. But Nat was the one who truly blazed the trail. Jackson was one of the first artists to benefit from the improved race relations in American Society after the stuggles of the 1960s, and by the time he was an adult, racism was an element that was largely out of the entertainment industry, even as it remained a factor in other professions and social interactions.
Michael Jackson is the greatest entertainer of all time: Hmm -- this is largely an idea that Jackson himself promoted, and somehow the media seems bound to continue it in the wake of his death. But will it hold up; was he truly greater than Beethoven or Duke Ellington, or even Stevie Wonder for that matter? Michael Jackson did not read music and could not play a musical instrument, although, as George Martin put it, “He's not a musician in the sense that Paul [McCartney] is...but he does know what he wants in music and he has very firm ideas." That is a pretty good summary of his working method in the studio, and in some cases he created demos for whole songs just multitracking his voice, a very interesting process.
I will gladly admit that as a dancer, in his prime, Jackson really had no peers. But as time went on, that facility became more difficult for him. Frank Sinatra was never one to go in much for movement; he danced a little in some of his film musicals, but we remember him primarily as a singer. That role was comfortable for him throughout his active career and kept him going for the better part of sixty years. Jackson’s concentration on physical movement and complex dance routines raised the bar for not only himself but the entire concert industry; it was picked up by Madonna and many other big concert attractions, kept choreographers very busy and became an integral part of what you are paying for when you shell out for a big ticket pop concert. But ultimately his ability to keep up that energy level declined; the “Dancing Machine” routine was one that he kept in concerts over many years, and on YouTube there is an interesting montage of the “robot dance” taken from several occasions – it is clear in the later performances that he isn’t able to execute the dance with the same clarity and crispness that had been second nature to him before.
Jackson didn’t choose a comfortable medium in which to express himself and needed to reinvent himself into a more modest format to suit his age and ability. He never did, and that might partly explain why he had such trouble, late in life, trying to get a successful concert string going, even as singers much older than him – for example, Cher – were able to make good in this respect.
As to the music, as you can see from the timeline above, I disconnected from it early and never really plugged back in. I am a critic and I like serious music, even in Pop music – to my ears, Micheal Jackson is like soda pop, whereas The Beatles at their best can be like a fine, aged Bordeaux. Sincerity is a key element in pop music, and no one doubts the sincerity of songs like “If I Fell” or “In My Life.” However, with “Billie Jean” and “We Are the World” there is a sense of distance; wanting to exclude someone from one’s life in the first song, and a sort of omniscient regurgitation of platitudes about the potential of world peace in the second. That some – actually millions worldwide -- find such pieces acceptable as high quality work is certainly something I can’t fault listeners for, but for me it is too reliant on formulas and is, by now, dated. I respect the production work of Quincy Jones, but when I want to experience the Q, this is not what I turn to, even though he has said that he prefers this work himself and listens to it often. I think without the visual component – the videos mainly – these might not have become the smashing musical successes that they were; although Micheal Jackson was not the first artist on MTV (that was The Buggles, on purpose, with “Video Killed the Radio Star”) as has been reported in the days following his death, I think he played a large part in making MTV indispensible to the music industry.
One thing Rev. Al Sharpton said makes a lot of sense; when asked if he could comment on how fame changed Michael Jackson, Sharpton said, “You cannot ask that, as Micheal didn’t have a life where fame changed him – he grew up in public and was always in some way famous.” That is what made him so different from others, and this led to contradictions in his life that are difficult to reconcile – how he turned from a man who was revered worldwide by children to someone more likely to scare a child half to death; my daughter, who is 15, always found him creepy and when I told her he had died, she asked, “He was still living?” As the years unfold before us, we will know whether or not the allegations about his pedophilia are true, and if you are a Micheal Jackson fan, I ask you, are you prepared for that? Are you ready? If he’s innocent as he said, then it will do no damage to his reputation and simply add a level of depth to his tragedy. But if he was a pedophile, that’s a really serious situation for his legacy, and the idea that he may have accessed children for such purpose through the charitable foundations which he ran seems particularly heinous.
This is going to be a major factor in the forward evaluation as to whether or not Jackson was the greatest entertainer of all time; now that he’s gone and there is already an entire generation that has grown up without him, his exalted status no longer exists on it’s own account. He may have dominated the pop music of the 1980s, but whether or not he will continue to dominate pop culture as the “King of Pop” much as Ellington is regarded as the ne plus ultra of Big Band music is something only the future can tell us.
For a less personal, more complimentary asessment, see Tom Erlewine's excellent piece at:
Uncle Dave Lewis
Ann Arbor, MI