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Remembering Michael: Help Me Sing It

Chris M. Slawecki By

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"Lift your head up high / And scream out to the world
I know I am someone / And let the truth unfurl
Ain't no one can hurt you now / Because you know what's true
Yes, I believe in me / So you believe in you
Help me sing it..."

Just like I remember where I stood in 1977 when news of Elvis' death ripped across televisions everywhere, most of us will remember where and how we learned of the death of Michael Jackson, "The King of Pop."

A good friend had been enthusiastically anticipating Jackson's comeback performances in Europe. Not because he would have been able to attend—my friend lives in South Jersey—but because he loves popular music and for the past four decades no one has cast a shadow over pop music, for better or worse, like Michael Jackson.

My friend and I swapped emails before Jackson's death, wondering if these shows were going to be any good. I remember teasing him, after several false rehearsal starts due to legal, financial, and health problems, that these comeback shows would end up as Jackson's version of Moses' promised land: God would let him see them from a distance, or maybe even up close, but for whatever reason God wasn't going to let him in.

It's easy to understand my friend's enthusiasm because it had been a long time since anyone had seen Michael Jackson perform. It seems to be an even longer time since anyone had seen Michael Jackson happy. His imagery often edged into the macabre: Jackson's most famous video cast him as a whacked-out dancing, romancing zombie, and he sang one of his most famous ballads to a (male) rat. Unsavory wounds, public and private, seemed almost self-inflicted as he tried to leave boyhood behind. For someone who was one of the most talented and celebrated individuals on the planet, Michael Jackson rarely seemed happy. His celebrity seemed a miserable burden, and no small number of critics jeered while he carried it.

It's sad to say, but such miserable and misshaped celebrity is one of several reasons that Michael Jackson was the Elvis of his generation, of my friend's generation, and of mine.

Most importantly, Elvis and Michael reconnected the mainstream commercial (white) market with rhythm and blues, which had culturally retreated into a fanatic but small black audience in the 1950s and again in the '70s. It is no coincidence that Elvis and Michael were both multimedia stars: Just as Elvis galvanized American popular taste about rock'n'roll with his historic Ed Sullivan Show performances in 1956, Jackson galvanized the post-rock musical generation with his heart-stopping rendition of "Billie Jean" on the Motown Records' 25th Anniversary television special broadcast in 1983. It burned his famous backwards "Moon Walk" into our collective memory, and few people who watched it would ever forget it. There were other important highlights in his career, both before and after, but if you had to point to Michael Jackson's brightest shining moment, this was it. My personal tastes have subsequently moved on, but I know I share this cultural reference point with millions. (It proved so transcendent that almost no one mentions Jackson had left Motown years before, so Thriller was raking it in for another label. It simply was Michael's time, and everybody knew it.)

Just like the trajectory of Elvis' fame coincided with the advance of television into American homes, videos for "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and the title song from Thriller simultaneously blazed the trail for and hitched Jackson's comet onto the advance of cable television, more specifically music television (or MTV), into these same homes.

Fortunately, Thriller was a once-in-a-lifetime work, and a worthy subject. It was popular and brilliant. How popular seems clear: It sold more copies than any other album (around 47 million in one recent count), claimed eight Grammy® Awards, and seven of its nine tracks became Top Ten singles.

But how brilliant has always seemed a more open question. Thriller was the apex of Jackson's collaborations with master composer, arranger and producer Quincy Jones, but it wasn't their first; the pair had already worked together for about five years, going back to Jackson's 1979 solo breakout, Off the Wall (Epic).

Many seem to take Jones' work with Count Basie and Frank Sinatra more seriously than his work with Jackson, whom Jones loved to the point of calling Michael his "little brother." But Thriller is a legitimately brilliant, thick and lush masterpiece. Its arrangements somehow allow the music to reveal itself in layers, yet its churning rhythms, multi-tracked vocals, and horny jams are always immediate and compelling. For two examples, listen to the African vocal chorus bubble up like an underground spring into the flowing synthetic funk of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin,'" or how every instrument locks down into the smooth, sophisticated rhythm behind "Billie Jean."


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