Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Cosmic American Perspective

When the performers who say they "never would have existed without you" are Usher and Justin Timberlake, your legacy might be in trouble. Now, I'll admit that Michael Jackson did release about ten or eleven really great songs over the course of his career. Among my collection of famous "mixes" is a Michael Jackson mix. Not many artists have been able to leave behind at least 80 minutes of memorable music. But I wouldn't put him up there with artists who've released album after album of challenging, gritty, eclectic work. He's Michael Jackson! Let's not get carried away here, people. I think the passionate outpouring of admiration emanating from the music world has more to do with the poor state of the current music scene than with the strength of Michael Jackson's discography itself.

Allow me to illustrate my point with some comments from the internet. In his appreciation, Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that "[his] sudden death gives us all an opportunity to appreciate the enduring genius of his art but to realize that we have no musician that speaks to all of us…and that we haven’t for some time now." In other words, "Man, I wish I could be reviewing Thriller for the first time rather than Miley Cyrus' new album!" But if Michael Jackson really did speak to "all of us," I don't know if he did it in a very interesting way. What, exactly, did he say? "Mamma-say mamma-sa mamma-mamma-sa"? Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone waxes a little more grandiloquent: "But in 1979, with Off The Wall, he invented modern pop as we know it." That may be true, but what if I don't happen to be much of a fan of "modern pop as we know it"? If you ask me, Michael Jackson happened to be making pretty good music at a time when mainstream music was rather iffy. Sure, Thriller deserved its commercial success, but what else were people going to buy? Sheena Easton?

Chuck Eddy writes on the Rhapsody blog, ""He was easily the greatest dancer of the past three decades, probably the greatest singer, and quite possibly the greatest songwriter." You mean the guy who didn't even write most of his own songs? And how much do you think Chuck Eddy actually knows about the world of dance? Yes, he was talented, and yes, he just died. But maybe do a little research first, eh Chuck?

Some of the commentators on the AMG blog do a decent, if excessively nasty, job of deflating this bubble. Here's "Mark":
"Michael Jackson. Yawn. Guy could really sing and dance in his prime. Great entertainer. Not a musician. Sold a lot of records. So did Milli Vanili, Wham, the Backstreet Boys, NKOTB, and countless others including today’s crop of Idol wasteoids. The media tore this guy up mercilessly for years and now they exult him and you all lap it up. Sheep. Most of those quotes above are disgusting beyond words. I wonder how many of those were written by people who even remember when Off the Wall or Thriller came out. I suspect many articles have been written by 20/30-somethings who for some reason look back longingly at the 80s as some sort of golden era. They weren’t. They sucked. And Jackson was a big part of that suckiness. I graduated from HS in ‘85. I know. No one took this guy seriously back then and they sure shouldn’t now that he’s gone. It’s sad when anyone passes on. But let’s keep it in perspective here folks. It’s really embarrassing. A third of the world doesn’t have clean drinking water. Cry for them."
And here's "hopjunkie":
"Mark is pretty much right even if a little too brash. Jackson was a huge, mega-selling pop star. He influenced major pop trends of his time and made lots of people very rich. However, I think if you really are honest, it’s true that it was the production and spectacle that made this guy’s career - not the songs...Liking pop music is no crime and it can be fun. But let’s not confuse Jackson with a serious artist and let’s definitely NOT overlook the freak show of his life and the possible damage he inflicted on innocent others."
So for a week now I have been witnessing music critics try to wring deep insights out of music that I don't think is particularly deep. And yet there some songs that I find quite compelling.

A critic may be inclined to dismiss Michael Jackson's solo career, and yet his death still would have merited attention simply based on his Jackson Five legacy alone. There is, of course, no genre with more rock critic cred than prime-era Motown, and the Jackson Five appeared at the very tail end of the period. Lest you forget just how far back Michael Jackson's fame goes: he became a superstar while the Beatles were still officially together. Then there was the singing. I'm no expert on great singing, but he sang better as a child than most adult singers sing as adults. My personal Exhibit A:

How could he have possibly known what those emotions were like? He probably didn't. I guess his dad beat that singing out of him. And you know what? It was worth it.

Now onto the solo career. I've only heard Off The Wall a couple of times, and I remember it as consisting of two perfect songs ("Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and "Rock With You") and a bunch of well-produced filler. Not quite sure why STE calls it "a visionary album...one that remains vibrant and giddily exciting years after its release"; I think he's being generous. I'll take Pink Floyd's The Wall instead. Those two songs are great, though. They are close to disco but rely a lot less on synthesizers. The horns and percussion all sound really snappy and organic. It is still weird hearing Jackson trying to be sexy considering all that followed. "You know this...force it's...got a lot of power...make me feel like a...make me feel like a...ooh!" Make you feel like what, Michael? Sleeping with boys?

I am now going to say something that will set the critical community on fire: I don't think that Thriller is a great album. Yes, it has many great songs on it, but that doesn't make it a great album. There is no overarching message, no unified feel. As Pitchfork's Tom Ewing writes, "Thriller is inconsistent in style, which gives it something to appeal to everyone, but it's oddly tough to listen to even the great bits sequentially-- its peaks are from different mountain ranges."

Let's go song by song: To these ears, "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady In My Life" are OK. Not terrible, but close to forgettable, and no "greatest album of all time" should have songs close to forgettable on it. "P.Y.T." is enjoyable but not amazing and, in retrospect, kind of creepy. "The Girl Is Mine" is hit-worthy but not "peaking at #2"-worthy (which is what it did). "Wanna Be Starting Something" is pretty strong but always sounded like a poor man's "Thriller" to me. Then there is the title track, which is musically thrilling, but...the lyrics are cheesy! Michael had an audience of billions; what would inspire him to record a kitschy song about horror movies? It's a great single but my God, you'd think he'd just released "Let It Be." I'd say nearly the same thing about "Beat It." So Eddie Van Halen does a solo. I need more. Besides, am I really supposed to buy Michael Jackson as some bad ass street thug? I don't think so.

However, I think there are two songs on Thriller that actually manage to match musical strength with thematic depth. The first is "Billie Jean." At the time people might have looked at "Billie Jean" as Michael doing a little role-playing, but in retrospect I think we can say that Michael was not making any of it up. This is how he really saw his life - random strangers constantly coming up to him at all hours of the day, framing him for no apparent reason:

For forty days and forty nights
The law was on her side
But who can stand when she's in demand
Her schemes and plans
'Cause we danced on the floor in the round

At least he had the balls to put it into a chart-topping mainstream hit. And the production! There are all these little, ghostly Michaels shouting in the background every few seconds; I don't even know what they're saying half the time but it's very haunting. And the little film noir bit of strings at the end of every chorus! This song is as good as any pop song by anybody: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, you name it.

The other song from Thriller with depth is "Human Nature." The song was written by former Carpenters lyricist John Bettis and Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. That is some serious M.O.R. cred right there. In fact, Toto basically functioned as the backing band on this track. And yet, even though he did not write it, Michael makes it his own:

Looking out
Across the nightime
The city winks a sleepless eye
Hear her voice
Shake my window
Sweet seducing sighs
Get me out
Into the night time
Four walls won't hold me tonight
If this town
Is just an apple
Then let me take a bite

I think this song is the sound of Michael Jackson just wishing that he could be a normal, anonymous human being for five seconds of his life. It's the sound of a deeply troubled young man who knows he won't be able to keep his inner demons at bay for very much longer. "Human Nature" is as close as Michael Jackson ever got to sounding like a functional, mature human being. After this it was pure regression. The song is even sadder in retrospect.

But again, the detailed production is what makes it hold up after all these years. Michael and Quincy spent time on "Human Nature," and it shows. They needed to spend as much time on "The Girl Is Mine" and "P.Y.T" as they did on this song if they wanted to say they made a truly top-to-bottom great album. Listen to all the fluttering synths and chimes and bells in the background - it's almost psychedelic! And again, he overdubbed his vocals in all sorts of weird, random places, so it's like a cascading waterfall of Michael Jacksons.

But for me (and, I suspect, many others my age), this music has an extra appeal because it reminds me of the very origins of my own life. It evokes, as much early '80s pop does, the first faint stirrings of existence, and as a result has a power that other, even better, music does not. It's lodged back there with hazy memories of E.T. and Return of the Jedi and other pieces of pop culture which I experienced in ways I can't even remember where, or how, but know only that I did.

Nevertheless, for me Thriller suggests a better album to come rather than a summit in its own right. It's like a Revolver without a Sgt. Pepper, a Talking Book without an Innervisions. Instead we got Bad, which wasn't bad but showed signs of laziness. The synthesizers on the title track and "Smooth Criminal" were not chosen as wisely as the synthesizers on "Billie Jean" and "Human Nature" were. He also forgot how to start a song dramatically. The best parts of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "Man In The Mirror" are the choruses; the intros are awash in bland keyboards and generic percussion. I think Bad is where Michael Jackson started thinking too hard about his position in the pop charts, rather than simply make music just for the sheer joy of it. I also feel like his singing at this point became overly affected. Just because the "hee hee"s and "shamon"s were distinctive doesn't mean they were necessary. But the bottom line is that, although the songs themselves weren't worse as compositions per se, he didn't bother to put as much effort into the sound. According to Wikipedia, engineer Bruce Swedien mixed "Billie Jean" ninety-one times. Ninety-one times! Now that's what I'm talking about. Here's more:
Jones had told Swedien to create a drum sound that no one had ever heard before. The audio engineer was also told to add a different element, "sonic personality". "What I ended up doing was building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat", Swedien later wrote. "The bottom line is that there aren't many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is." He concluded, "But I think that is the case with 'Billie Jean'—and that I attribute to sonic personality.
So there you go. In the end, Jackson simply didn't bother to imbue his recordings with the same level of "sonic personality" as most of my favorite artists did. But he did do it every once in a while. And how many musicians can even boast that much?


Sarah said...

boo. There's no accounting for taste I suppose, but you're you're officially un-invited to my Off-the-Wall dance party.

Herr Zrbo said...

I think a big part of MJ's legacy is that he helped usher in the era of MTV and video-based music. I know your opinion isn't particulary high on music video, but it's been a pretty significant force in popular culture.

Michael's music was significant not necessarily for the music, but for the video and performance that went along with it. Even though they had paltry budgets compared to modern ones, videos like "Billie Jean", "Bad", "Leave me Alone", even "Rock with you" (for the kitsch) are mesmerizing to watch. It's the whole combination of the flashy pop music, Michael's ultra-stylized dancing, the fashion, the sets, that create these videos that demand your attention. Since you didn't grow up watching videos like I did I think you miss this significance. The quick fast editing of music videos has been adopted by filmmakers as well.

As I mentioned to you before, you want to examine Michael's musical legacy in a bubble, but you can't remove the music from the context, his music alone isn't why he was popular. He was equally popular for his visual legacy, he was an extraordinary entertainer, a performer, not some bummed-out British bloke who wrote songs about the human condition.

Listening to some MJ recently with my girlfriend we realized his songs just aren't as exciting without the accompanying video to watch. It's like listening to a film soundtrack without the film, it just doesn't have the same impact. Or listening to Fred Astaire sing and dance without seeing him do the dance. Context is where it's at.

Little Earl said...

Sorry for "removing the music from the context." Perhaps I should have titled my post "Michael Jackson's Recorded Music" instead, because that's basically what I was analyzing. You're right, my opinion of music video isn't particularly high. I've never sat in my room late at night after a bad day and turned on that "moving music video that spoke to my soul"; it's almost always been a recording by itself. But one is probably not better than another. Although I would debate your assertion that "quick fast editing" originated in music videos. Music videos may have picked up the idea of "quick fast editing" from Peckinpah, Bob Fosse, the French New Wave or even Eisenstein. But why split hairs.

Besides, my ultimate aspiration in life is to be a bummed-out British bloke who writes songs about the human condition!

Sarah: good to see you're still out there following the C.A.B. You are welcome to disregard my analysis of Michael Jackson's recorded career if it has not contributed to your life in a positive way.

Herr Zrbo said...

Well, I'll concede the quick editing bit, you're the film buff after all.

I think Michael's unexpected and early death is probably contributing to the "let's discuss his legacy" fervor of the media. If he had died 25 years from now it probably would have been easier to see what kind of effect his legacy had. Right now it's mainly fun to speculate. Let's come back in a year, or even 10, and discuss it then. "Michael who?"

We haven't even talked about his memorial service. Seemed like the media was expecting a huge spectacle, but they forgot that it's basically a guy's funeral. I was watching the replay of it that night and I realized how honestly sad and distraught some of those people were. Even Usher seemed to be having honest difficulty finishing his song, trying to choke back tears. I mean, there's the guy's casket, and the pastor offering comforting words, this wasn't a "lifetime achievement award" presentation CNN wanted it to be, for some of those folks it was their best friend/brother's wake.

Sarah said...

Again, taste is taste. But I can honestly say I think the three albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad hold up without videos, and provide far more than 10 solid songs. This is doubtless more the credit of some excellent producers and musicians (Quincy Jones? Hell yes) but just like so many Motown artists, it was the force of personality necessary to deliver these awesome songs to the public. And MJ did that for decades in a way that transcended race lines and made possible a more diverse audience for R&B and eventually rap.

I'll grant you the Free Willy song can go straight to obscurity though. That song blows.

Little Earl said...

Everyone's takin' control of me!
Sayin' that the world's got a role for me!
I'm so confused will you show to me
You'll be there for me, and...something something something! (I forget the "Will You Be There" lyrics)

Hey Sarah, just curious: who are your favorite recording artists of all time? Your favorite albums? I'd have a better idea of how to argue with you.

I think Michael Jackson's death is highlighting a subtle racial divide. The African-American community seems to feel like Michael was almost a civil rights pioneer in a way. A couple of years ago my roommate (who is half black) and I were talking about Michael Jackson, and he was trying to explain to me that, in the eyes of black people, Michael Jackson represented the first time that the biggest pop star in the world was black. I had never really thought of him in that way. To me, there had been so many extremely famous black performers before Michael Jackson: Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; Jimi Hendrix; Aretha Franklin; Ray Charles; James Brown, etc. "But," my roommate added, "None of those artists were ever the BIGGEST pop star of their time, the way that Michael Jackson was." So I guess African-Americans feel like he was a bit of a hero. And we can see this now in the reaction to his death. I may be simplifying, but I think the attitude is, "Anything weird that he did was not really his fault, people were after him all the time, the media was trying to laugh at him," and so on. Which is how a lot of black people feel about a lot of things. Here's Mos Def from "Mr. Nigga":

You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna
Woody Allen, molested and married his step-daughter
Same press kickin dirt on Michael's name
Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game, holdin hands
Sit back and just bug, think about that
Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?

Not to quibble with you Mos, but I don't believe Woody was actually found guilty of "molesting" Soon-Yi. You want to grind that ax, have fun. But I digress. My point is, to some, Michael Jackson was a hero, and to others, Michael Jackson was a weirdo.

Sarah said...

Yup, I'll go with you on total weird-o, but does that change the nature of his music? I think it's obvious that art/music/creative output has to stand alone from the publicity. K-fed's album isn't any good just because he was a tabloid face for awhile, and just because MJ was weird as hell doesn't make his legacy any less rad.

Basquiat beat up women and did all kinds of heinous things. His art is still thought provoking and moving.

I like your explanation of the subtlety of the racial influence MJ exerted on America. I think a parallel could be drawn to Obama and the difference between a society that says it has moved past segregation and a society that actively elects a black man to lead the nation. Yeah, that's right. I just compared Michael Jackson to Obama. But don't get your shorts in a bunch. We're talking nationwide perception of black prominence now not about tabloid sensationalism.

I'm pretty sure we have largely different taste in music, so I'm not expecting you to share my views on any of my music favorites, but if it helps you make a point:

fav albums= Surfer Rosa, Daddy's Highway, My Aim is True, Remain in LIght, Marquee Moon, Charm of the Highway Strip, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

On top of the artists who made those albums, iTunes tells me I am currently listening to a whole lot of 1980s Madonna, Prince, almost any pop from New Zealand or Senegal, Andrew Bird, and the Replacements.

Little Earl said...

Very nice. Very nice indeed! I don't know about Senegalese pop but hopefully you will enjoy my new post on Madonna. Both Yoggoth and I would consider ourselves dedicated fans of David Bowie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Magnetic Fields, and the Pixies. Do not be afraid. Just one question though: how do you feel about pop/rock/soul released prior to 1975?

Also: you need to register with Google so that your name can become a wonderful bright blue link!

Sarah said...

I'm a huge Motown fan. And Stax Records. Pretty much anything that came out on Stax in the 60s was sweet. Love the Kinks, the Stones and the Who. Not an intense Beatles fan, but Revolver is on my shelf. The Who Sell Out is probably on some kind of list for me.

And I DO dig the new Madonna post. Finally some common musical ground.

Thought I should throw down one final question about MJ here though- how will you mourn Roman Polanski when his time comes? Parallel creepiness for me.

Little Earl said...

Hard to say. Perhaps an all-night Knife In The Water/Rosemary's Baby/Tess/Ninth Gate creep-a-thon?

What do you mean, "Finally some common musical ground"? I see so much common musical ground it's not even funny - and I am a man who laughs at everything. The person here who you probably don't have much common musical ground with is Zrbo, but I'll let him argue with you about that.

And I'll keep this brief: The Who Sell Out?! It's one good song ("I Can See For Miles") and a bunch of demos. I'm a Tommy man myself.

Sarah said...

Okay, fair enough. I should modify that to say I love the 1995 re-issue that has our love was, glittering girl and melancholia included. And that I really like jingles.

I should also modify to say finally some common ground in the main page CAB posts, since you've already shown excellent taste in your comments. Cheers.

Herr Zrbo said...

My love for VNV Nation came from my love for Madonna. Both are very danceable, in fact they're both the kind of music when I'm dancing can I feel this free/at night I lock the doors so no one else can see.

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