Whitney Houston: "This is such a tragic loss and a terrible day. The incomparable Michael Jackson has made a bigger impact on music than any other artist in the history of music."
My response to Whitney and seemingly every other person in front of a television camera this week: Uh, yeah… no.
Look, I loved Michael Jackson too. I had a poster of the Jackson 5 over my bed when I was a kid. I saw him do the moonwalk during an epic (lip synced) performance of “Billie Jean” (taped – does anyone even remember that?) from the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special. I’m saddened by his untimely demise. No matter what craziness he brought forth into the world, the image of that angelic, young boy with the unbelievable voice, moves, and interpretive genius far, far beyond his years means that I’ll never totally discount him. But can we all take a step back and slow the hyperbole train down just a little bit?
Can we just stop for one second and remember that the man, who anointed Michael Jackson the “King of Pop” was Michael Jackson? Remember that huge statue of himself he ridiculously floated down the River Thames?
The day you die is the day that pretty much everyone gets a pass. The news was even full of appreciation for Richard Nixon’s political genius when he died, and the man was as close to the devil as any politician the United States has ever produced. So yeah, Michael deserved his day in the sun, maybe even a week or so, but let’s not all go completely crazy and start saying that Mozart couldn’t hold a candle to him.
I even just witnessed Kurt Loder say that Michael was a lot more financially savvy than people gave him credit for, which is a pretty amazing statement for someone, who passed away owing his creditors somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million dollars!
We didn’t lose a Kurt Cobain. We didn’t lose a Buddy Holly. Michael Jackson was without a doubt a completely spent musical force. His last album (Invincible) came out eight years ago, was widely panned and mocked, and my guess is that you didn’t buy it and can’t name three songs off of it. Its predecessor (Dangerous) came out a full ten years before that and despite sales that would make most artists celebrate for the next decade was viewed by his record company as a major disappointment (Yes, you can sell ten million albums and still lose money if you spend 30 million dollars promoting it). His last epic video “You Rock My World” was noteworthy mostly for the fact that it featured Marlon Brando and Chris Tucker, and yet Michael’s appearance was leagues weirder and funnier than either of them. This was not a guy, who was about to have a Johnny Cash career renaissance.
Michael was without a doubt one of the most famous men in the world. When it comes to musical acts at their peak, only Sinatra, Presley, and the Beatles were ever that omnipresent a part of American life. In 1983, he was probably also the hippest man in the world. Thriller came along at just the right time to vault the video revolution into hyperdrive, and, despite the fact that every single person in America seemed to already own the album, each new single flew up the charts as if it were a new polio vaccine.
From 1969 to 1983, Michael’s career was almost universally without flaw. After Thriller, face it, Michael Jackson was lost. Despite all the money in the world; despite the fact that every producer and songwriter alive was dying to work with him; despite unbelievable levels of singing, dancing talent and charisma – he became more and more irrelevant to the point where for the past decade, he was more of a joke than a respected artist, incredibly dependent on the fact that his worldwide audience outside of the United States seemed willing to forgive even his greatest peccadilloes and remember him at his apex. Admit it, there was a reason those 50 comeback concerts were being held in England and not the United States.
Chris Rock: "Remember when we was young, everybody used to have these arguments about who's better, Michael Jackson or Prince? Prince won!"
It took Michael four years to follow up Thriller with the album Bad, and he was already becoming something of a parody of himself. Whereas the video for “Beat It” was electric and straight from the streets, the video for “Bad” (directed by Martin Scorsese no less) comes off as a pale silly imitation phoned in from Neverland, and whereas no one would ever mess with the full 14 minute video of his epic video for “Thriller”, I can’t remember a single time that all 18 minutes of “Bad” ever appeared on MTV.
The once in a lifetime pairing of Jackson and Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It” was followed by a less than interesting pairing with Slash on 1991’s “Give in to Me.” While we can all sing every note of Van Halen’s ground breaking, cross over insuring “Beat It” solo, I’ll bet my life savings that you can’t even hum three seconds of the melody of its inferior, copy cat follow up.
I saw some musician or other on some channel or other (the coverage has been about as out of control as the last twenty years of Mike Tyson’s life) lauding the “incredible” John Landis directed video for “Black and White.” The speaker rightfully acknowledged the incredible morphing effects at the end of the video as being revolutionary for the time. They supplied the heartwarming (if a little clichéd) message that all races were truly alike.
But that wasn’t really the end of the “Black and White” video. The real ending was four minutes or so of Michael desperately attempting to appear cutting edge by laying waste to a bunch of parked cars, with a series of absurd screams that was so poorly received that the sequence was eventually cut and rarely shown on television again. His appearance at the beginning of this sequence as a black panther was a laughable political statement that negated the entire raceless message that preceded it. I haven’t watched all thousand hours of television coverage on Jackson’s career, but I certainly didn’t see anyone mention this.
Despite the fact that every new Jackson release seemed to promise some epic statement, Jackson has never produced anything on the level of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The man was entertainment personified, but aside from a vague notion that we should all get along and an admirable love for children that turned into an incredibly uncomfortable affection for young boys, who really knows what was going on in his head. Where did the anti-Semitic lyrics in “They Don’t Care about Us" come from? How did he go from being Paul McCartney’s best friend to stealing the Beatles catalog out from under him? I don’t know and neither do you.
When Michael tried to make a big statement on songs like “We Are the World” and “Man in the Mirror”, the results were sappy, trite, and fairly unlistenable. “We Are the World” was an admirable effort to follow up on Bob Geldof’s Band Aid project, but it’s hardly revolutionary to come out against starving children, and Jackson never again came close to using his worldwide popularity for anything else, but promoting his own legend. In fact, after his last acquittal on child molestation charges, he was delusional enough to compare the day of his “not guilty” verdict to the freeing of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Jackson is getting a lot of credit for forcing MTV to play Black artists and opening the door that enabled numerous African American audiences’ access to a wider audience, and he did. But one has to remember that it was Walter Yetnikoff, then president of CBS records, who forced MTV’s hand by threatening a boycott.
"I said to MTV, ‘I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.’" This doesn’t necessarily lesson Jackson’s accomplishment, but again he was and would remain merely an entertainer, when he could have perhaps been so much more.
Sadly, it’s readily apparent that Michael Jackson, the man, didn’t really have very much to say, and that musically and stylistically, his attempts to keep up with artists who remained vital over the next two decades like Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Prince, became more and more bizarre, pathetic, and depressing.
Michael Jackson made some great music in his life. He even recorded some fantastic material after the nuclear uprising that was Thriller. But he was not Elvis Presley; he was not John Lennon; he wasn’t Marvin Gaye, and he wasn’t Stevie Wonder. He was a wonderful little kid, whose innocence was destroyed by fame and an abusive father.
He was a man, who lost touch with the world after his crowning achievement. He is definitely one of the 100 greatest musical talents of the 20th Century. But seriously, Whitney and everybody else need to come back to earth and take their foot off the pedal.
The truth is that all of us spent the last 26 years waiting for another "BIllie Jean" moment, and for various reasons (fame, drugs, insanity, abuse, isolation) it never happened. We were all rooting for Michael, but for well over two decades his music was awaited with anticipation and dread much like the fervor that accompanied another great MJ, during his less than inspiring time with the Washington Wizards.
I’m not filled with hatred for Michael. You won’t ever catch me deleting the 40 or so songs of his from my iPod. But artistically the last 25 years were a gigantic, soul crushing let down. The work before that puts him in the pantheon of greats, but sadly nowhere near the top.
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