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Remembering The Music of Michael Jackson

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I stole away a couple minutes while at work yesterday to write about Motown's upcoming Fanthology, a collection of 50 of Motown's greatest songs as chosen by fans.  In writing about the trouble of picking just five songs, I made mention of a time when Michael Jackson was famous for being a singer rather than any number of other real and imagined tabloid topics.  Within a few hours of that article being published, we all learned of his passing.

Only the myths and legends of Elvis Presley and The Beatles rival that of Michael Jackson.  Elvis got there first.  The Beatles were four men yet became a single movement that galvanized a moment in time.  Michael Jackson became a towering, transcendent figure.  All of them probably understood something about the others, while taking their own unique place in the zeitgeist.  All of them became famous for many things, but it started with their music.  Many have and will continue to discuss the other parts of Jackson's life and persona that grabbed headlines.  

Today, several Blogcritics writers have gathered to focus on his music, which is both a universal phenomenon enjoyed by tens of millions across the world and something personal and solitary.  Join us in looking back on the music of Michael Jackson.

Connie Phillips, Blogcritics Music Editor

Michael Jackson ruled the charts when I graduated from high school in 1985. "We Are the World" was my class song and at that tender age we believed what he sold — we could change the world. He proved it by flipping the music industry on its ear with Thriller. The video for that title song was a world-wide event. Even the cynical adult I've gown into can't deny that simple fact.

My younger sister was the hard-core fan; it was the songs that would turn my ear. I always favored "Billie Jean" to "Thriller" but couldn't deny that video would forever change the way artists approached music videos. Despite the mystery and rumors that surrounded his personal life, when it came to music, dancing, and the even bigger picture of performing, there lived a talent that won't soon be replaced and will be sorely missed in the pop world.

Josh Hathaway, Blogcritics Sr. Assistant Music Editor

I begin with the simple premise everybody likes at least one Michael Jackson song, whether or not they admit it.  Not one CD on my shelf or one song on my iPod is a Michael Jackson song, but even I like a couple songs by Michael Jackson.  Saying you don't like at least one song by Michael Jackson is like saying you don't like oxygen.  In short, you're lying.

Part of what makes that true is something we often miss about his music: its breadth.  Think about it all: there are those magical, innocent pop gems with The Jackson 5, the ballads, the incredible dance numbers, and even a pair of songs where he teamed up with "Guitar Heroes" to rock out.  The self-proclaimed King of Pop could make such audacious claims because his music transcended genre and decades, confounding critics and surprising audiences who dared him to top himself one more time.  

Jackson hadn't been musically relevant in nearly two decades.  Some will blame the mess his life became.  I'm reminded of a riddle created by religious skeptics who ask if God is powerful enough to create a boulder so big he can't move it.  I wonder if the diminishing output wasn't in part the result of being overwhelmed by the prospect of climbing the mountain he created.  He lived in a place called Neverland, but even Michael Jackson couldn't be Michael Jackson forever. What it seems he couldn't quite comprehend that we understand now in the wake of his passing is that he didn't have to.  

Jay Skipworth

So, so many things come to mind. The classic songs, the iconic images of him dancing and entertaining the masses, all of these flood my memories.  Michael Jackson was my Elvis Presley. He was that to my generation and many others.

I choose now to remember him in a song from Bad, "Man in the Mirror."  It may not be the obvious choice, but for me, that was Michael’s last perfectly honest moment to the world about himself. That song, written with Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, is a prayer for understanding and a plea for the inner peace Michael never found.

I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change

Goodbye, Michael. Thank you for the music.

Kit O'Toole

Michael Jackson's legacy will be his singing and dancing, which encouraged people to have fun and find joy in music. This theme pervades his masterpiece, Off the Wall. “Rock with You” featured Jackson seducing someone through smooth vocals and an easy beat. He urged listeners to feel the “force” on “Don't Stop Till You Get Enough,” and his voice's lower register and that irresistible percussion further enticed fans. Stop “Working Day and Night” and get lost in the beat, he urged. Perhaps the title song best expresses Jackson's philosophy: “Groove, let the madness in the music get to you/Life ain't so bad at all/If you live it off the wall.” Jackson's life may have been cut tragically short, but Off the Wall's messages of living life to the fullest will be appreciated by generations to come.

Greg Barbrick

For me, there are two iconic moments in Michael Jackson's career I will never forget.  The Motown 25th Anniversary is one.  I was working at Tower Records, and we tuned in. When he moonwalked, the entire store was transfixed.  In the aftermath I witnessed the closest thing to Beatlemania I probably ever will. Thriller just sold and sold and sold. It was unreal.

Just last week I was watching a clip show on VHI called Black To The Future, a look at African-American culture in the 1970s. They showed The Jackson 5 on Soul Train, performing "Dancing Machine." I remembered watching this kid not much older than myself doing The Robot, and being absolutely mesmerized.  I always liked the music, but Michael's dancing was simply unbelievable.



My cousins and I were age contemporaries with Michael Jackson. So it was huge for us when the Jackson 5 hit big.  Finally, one of our music idols was the same age as we were! Saturday afternoons we would pile on a stack of our Jackson 5 45rpm records and sing along.  

Decades later it's still a tradition in my own home. I've traded 7" singles for CDs and sing with my hubby instead of the cousins. But the core feelings have never strayed. Hearing just a few notes is like stepping into a time machine.

The shock of Michael's death is immeasurable to me. How could it be? We're of the same age, and now he's gone. Thankfully, through his music he will always live on.  My prayers go out to his family, friends and fans for the strength needed to get through this most trying of times.

The Other Chad

Michael Jackson made me a music fan, period. As an 8-year-old child, Jackson was the first musician I ever really noticed. His collaboration with Paul McCartney, "Say Say Say," led to my discovery of '60s pop/rock and Motown R&B in one fell swoop. Almost every musical exploration I've embarked upon can be traced back, at least indirectly, to my early obsession with Jackson. But his best work transcends simple nostalgia; his best singles are era-defining masterpieces. And his generally underrated mid-'70s work with his brothers is electrifying. Listen to the title track from Destiny, in light of his tragic passing, and just try not to be moved.


T. Michael Testi

Okay, first let me say I did not know Michael Jackson. But, like him, I was born in Gary, Indiana. Beginning with the song "ABC," throughout my existence Michael Jackson has been around.

Looking back at the times in which I grew up in I know there was racism, but it was through their success that they transcended color. Like a local football team, they were home town heroes. When the Osmonds came on the scene, they were they were the enemy. The Jacksons were our guys.

The Jacksons faded and Michael came to the spotlight with his solo career. Even moreso, he was one of our own. Again, his success transcended boundaries. Today, many talk about his eccentricities, his weirdness, and his lifestyle. Like Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman, good or bad, Michael Jackson will always be a hometown hero.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Great article Kit, very nice thoughts about M.J. work!

  • Josh, I think you hit the mark with your observation about climbing a never-ending mountain. MJJ set such a precedent that he probably didn’t even stop to think about just going with the flow after a certain point. As a result, we have an untouchable musical legacy to remember him by — but simultaneously, an inescapable void knowing the price he paid to create that!

  • graham woods

    well now the three kings of music are in heven.king of rock and roll elvis.king of contrey johnny cash.king of pop michael jackson.thank you to all..

  • Tink, I love what you said. I am the same age as you and that was it…Michael was our age. I remember them playing ABC at my grade 8 graduation dance. I lost interest later in life but I’ll always remember that little boy and his incredible talent.

  • Kit O’Toole

    I enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts as well as readers’ comments. I’m glad that you, Josh, gave us a chance to talk about MJ’s musical legacy instead of rehashing all the controversial stuff. And zingzing, I agree, “Liberian Girl” is an underrated song.

  • Thanks again go out to everyone who participated and shared their thoughts. Thanks Rosie, Sherry, Jordan, and zing for the comments and kind words.

  • zingzing

    i’m listening to bad for the first time since i was 10 or so right now, and i think “liberian girl” could probably be a hit today. #1: it kicks ass. #2: r&b has stagnated, so the dated qualities, however small, might not matter. #3: if the streets of brooklyn, which have been absolutely filled with mj over the past few days say anything, this shit is hot right now. #4: i’m listening to it again, and it’s better than the first time (or 150th, good god knows how many times i listened to it back in the late 80s).

  • Jordan Richardson

    Well done and beautifully stated stuff, gang.

  • Enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts – thanks, Josh, for letting me contribute.

  • Sherry

    Very nice article and thoughts about his music.

  • Rosie

    He was a game-changing musician, despite his psychological problems. I agree, living life to the fullest is a powerful message for us to take away.

  • You’re probably right, Suss. I don’t think any of us can be exclusively defined solely by any one thing be it the best or worst thing we’ve ever done. Michael Jackson was more than a musician, no matter how significant his achievement in the field. Music made him world famous. Other factors took that fame to a completely different level. All of it is worth reflecting on, I suppose, including the music. Lost in the flood of everything else is that the guy was wicked gifted.

  • Reading this, I am struck again by the breathe and span of MJs life work. Like other greats that have gone on before him, Elvis and Sinatra come to mind, there is no denying the fact that he had the ability to reach different generations of fans. And that he, like them, will continue to do so in the future.

    Thanks to Josh and Connie for the opportunity to be a part of this article.

  • He was juuust before my time. But his mark on pop culture was indelible even as an embattled caricature in the nineties. I’m sure a lot of people would like to remember him strictly by his music, but it doesn’t do his legacy justice as a tragic figure who never really had a childhood.

  • Karen Stoessel

    Thanks Kit…although never a big fan of Michael Jackson’s, I did enjoy some of his music. I wish him peace in his spiritual Neverland.