With the passing of the self proclaimed King of Pop Michael Jackson the world has lost a truly unique and irreplaceable and indeed legendary personality.
Michael Jackson was not only one of the most successful recording artists of all time but also an icon who impacted not one but successive generations and whether you were of the view that he was a twisted pervert who should rot in hell or that he was the living reincarnation of Peter Pan or indeed the King of Pop; the fact remains in one way or another, for good or bad (no pun intended) that seldom if ever has a mere mortal had such an indelible impact on the worlds Pop cultural landscape. Michael Jackson provided Pop Culture an enduring and unparalleled Icon of the 80s while in the 70s he was the instantly recognizable cherubic, mischievous bright-eyed tot who thrilled millions as the charismatic lead singer of the Jackson 5. During the 90s he rose to great prominence again but this time for reasons that left him as the worlds primary human punching bag; mocked, lampooned, hounded and derided at every breath of his subsequent existence all the way to his early grave. Strangely and perhaps revealingly much of the time the wildest and most ridiculous rumours about Wacko Jacko (as coined by the Brutal British Tabloids) were fuelled by the enigma himself as Jackson was known to take perverse childlike delight at “manipulating and playing” the press for publicity, but frequently his shenanigans would rebound on him not quite as he may have intended; Like a child winding up a toy and finding that it then doesn’t quite behave as he had imagined.
But love him or loathe him, Michael Joseph Jackson was a phenomenon unlike any other witnessed in the realm of global pop culture since Elvis in the 50s, The Beatles in the 60s and Adolf Hitler before that. Residents of Minneapolis-St.Paul may lay legitimate claims to their man being the greater musical genius but for sheer global mass appeal and star quality, Jackson was in a league of his own with Prince, Madonna, U2 and friends lagging way, way behind.
Michael Jackson was born into a brood of 8 siblings to ex-guitarist Joe Jackson and his wife Katharine. Daddy Joe Jackson had harboured dreams of a show-biz career but never tasted the fruits of success but in his boys he saw a spark of potential and gently encouraged by his wife, Joe devoted himself to shaping his houseful of urchins to try to resurrect and cobble together his own faded dreams but to latch on to that ever elusive American Dream. So, in an ordinary working class household in the drab town of Gary, Indiana, Joe Jackson, a ruthless authoritarian drilled his sons for hours on end until a The Jackson 5 finally was unveiled in front of the local community, rapidly causing ripples on the local club circuit.
Joe would drive his sons to shows in different cities within his range and in a short time the Jacksons were making waves and turning heads as well as booked solid on the local circuit. The brothers even recorded a couple singles on Steeltown Records, a small Gary based label and managed to attract the attention of Soul stars such as Sam & Dave and Gladys Knight had twice pestered Motown suits about this band from Gary but to no avail. Finally it was Bobby Taylor of a band called the Vancouvers who having witnessed The Jacksons electrify an audience at Chicago’s High Chaparral Club in 1968, managed to get them a Motown audition with the big boss Mr. Motown himself, Berry Gordy.
The Jackson 5 audition at Motown, unknown to all at the time was to have seismic effects on the world of Pop music in times to come. The immediate effect was that Berry Gordy, the King of Motown was astounded by what he witnessed, not so much musically but as a saleable commodity brimming with untapped potential. Here was an act as wholesome and likeable as the best American Apple Pie and perfect for the all important medium of television – the window to Middle Class America. These James Brown inspired Jackson boys had a vitality that was infectious despite their obvious drawbacks when it came to musical ability. However it was palpably clear on that day that there was a raw diamond in the diminutive lead singer who was shy and awkward off stage but when the lights came on, he was a little packet of dynamite. Berry Gordy signed up the Jacksons and handed them over to Motown’s charm school polishing up team to work their magic before The Jacksons were to be revealed to the world at large. Gordy cooked up a fairy tale like story which the press would be fed about how Diana Ross spotted the Jacksons at a benefit for the Mayor and was so taken by them that she took them under her wing and groomed them and prepared the brothers for their first four songs, each of which would zoom to the summit on the pop and soul charts. Indeed “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” all topped the charts announcing the arrival of the fastest rising meteorite in the Pop Music Orbit.
Berry Gordy had enjoyed massive success at Motown for a decade or so now found his interest and focus shifting towards TV and even Movies and by 1970 Gordy was well on the way to dragging Motown in new directions with his production of Lady Sings the Blues about singer Billie Holliday to be performed inevitably by Diana Ross with whom he famously shared a very special bond. The Jacksons recordings at Motown also signalled for the very first time a distinct shift away from the rigidly structured conveyor belt hit factory sound of the Motown House of Hits characterised by The Supremes to a much more varied soulful sound that emerged in the 70s.
The Jackson 5 euphoria that reached dizzying heights during the first year or so started to taper off and though the hits still came, the big chartbusters dried up and the think tank at Motown were always wary of the challenge that a band of squeaky clean kids would be faced with once they started sprouting facial hair, look less adorable and their voices started to break. The Jacksons soldiered on with steady if not quite spectacular results and with new trends emerging in soul music it was obviously going to be a challenge for long term survival. Numerous funk bands tried to reinvent themselves in an era dominated by Dance music and couldn’t survive the rigours of change, fellow Motown giants such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, The Temptations and even heavyweights The Isley Brothers now found their records being outsold by brash disco acts such as the Village People with little or no musical credibility. As the 70s ticked over the Jackson hit bank started to falter and Michael Jackson was encouraged to record the occasional solo outing as he entered his geeky adolescent years.
One of Berry Gordy’s most ill conceived ideas at Motown was his foray into cinema. Diana Ross had managed an Oscar Nomination and Lady Sings the Blues was well received so Gordy was encouraged enough to go for a second production, once again starring the apple of his eye, Diana Ross in a treacly, schmaltzy and quite sickly piece of pap known as “Mahogany”. The film underperformed and was deservedly given a fearful hammering by the critics. Sadly Gordy was undeterred and continued to plan for his ultimate blockbuster, the Soul version of The Wizard of Oz called The Wiz which was to star his roster of talent at Motown and propel them all into another stratosphere of stardom altogether. Sadly it was the greatest miscalculation by an otherwise brilliantly shrewd Berry Gordy, one which Motown never really ever recovered from but from this disaster was to emerge ultimately the three recordings that would elevate Michael Jackson to the status of the World’s most successful recording artist of all. Michael was cast in the role of the Scarecrow while an ageing Diana Ross managed to persuade Gordy to cast her despite the scripts demands for a youthful Dorothy.
The film was a disaster of epic proportions and earned its place alongside the biggest financial turkeys ever produced in Hollywood. Motown would never be the same but on the set of the movie Michael Jackson was to meet Quincy Jones and the two of them worked out a plan by which Jackson would find his own identity as a solo artist in his own right working with Jones’s faithful team of songwriters, composers , Musicians and producers. The first fruit of this union was Michael Jackson’s first grown up Solo Album titled Off The Wall released August 10th 1979.
This was to be the acid test of whether the world was ready to accept Michael Jackson without The Jacksons by his side. Sales for the album started solidly but not spectacularly and a tense Michael Jackson was pleased yet not elated but as time went by the Album showed remarkable staying power and four top ten hits were squeezed out of the album, unprecedented in those days. Among them was a recording of a song with virtually no musical accompaniment at all, recorded in a darkened studio because Jackson was too self conscious to sing the way he needed to do justice to an emotional song such as “She’s Out of My Life”. The recording ended with Jackson breaking down in sobs which are captured on the video of song. Off the Wall was embraced whole heartedly by the Soul and RnB record buying community and Michael Jackson fully endorsed by the Afro American community as the latest high profile ambassador for his people.
Then in 1982 the same team responsible for Off The Wall created an album titled Thriller, a body of work that took Jackson from being a superstar within Afro American circles to making the “impossible” crossover to conquer the white Rock n Roll record buying public. It was incredible to see the Rolling Stones crowd, the Bruce Springsteen set, and the Disco Sucks community; the Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead set even the Sex Pistols lot rushing out to make sure they had Thriller in their collections. MTV which had been a white only domain couldn’t withstand the pressure and succumbed to playing Michael Jacksons videos therefore opening the doors for hundreds of Afro American acts to follow. Thriller, in America especially smashed through very strictly defined traditional musical barriers and bias with radio stations that would never touch a black artist now playing Beat it and Billie jean alongside Metallica and Val Halen.
Thriller was the ultimate crossover success and subsequently Jackson had to make an event of every time a video of his was revealed for the first time. Michael Jackson, taking a leaf from the book of his Hollywood friends, redefined the term Hype and his every step had to be surrounded by a mass hysteria and adulation. He hung around exclusively with high profile celebrities, fronted a staged relationship with the glamorous Brooke Shields, partied with Hollywood glitterati and everything in life was peachy but still there was a void and once he moved to fill that void, he triggered the collapse of his own Fairytale Kingdom and never regained full control. Events took control of Michael Jackson’s life which thereafter became an exercise in damage control and face saving. Tens of millions were paid out to buy the silence of those who could irreparably tarnish the crumbling facade of the Jackson brand.
Jackson managed to defuse the initial musical disappointment of BAD (the first two singles were turgid) with a set of groundbreaking videos that kept him very much at the centre stage of Pop Music and the hits continued to flow regularly until the 90s when the first allegations reared their ugly head and musical staleness started creeping in with Jackson rushing around shopping for the hippest producers to help him out of his rut and to keep up with changing musical trends. The funk inspired pop classics that fell off the conveyor belt regularly through the 80s dried up and were replaced by maudlin, syrupy, sentimental tosh about Healing the World and Saving the Children, pure pap not pop. Incredibly sibling Janet easily eclipsed her infamous brother for record sales and her spectacular popularity surged ahead of her brother whose career was at a crossroads and in danger of meandering to stagnation.
Sadly, this is the time when his own insecurities and warped aspirations started to resurface and accelerate and the countless sessions of cosmetic surgery were carried out with further adjustments made to his nose and eyebrows. Nobody knew then that this was the start of a very twisted journey which saw the man shed the race that he had been born into and wishfully transform himself into a hideous cut and paste version of 80s brat-packer Rob Lowe. Even the jaw line was puffed up to resemble his favoured new face and then Lowe’s trademark cleft in the chin was incorporated into his own fast morphing features. The change was startling and left many of his fans reeling and many of his afro American fans hurt and betrayed by their idol that now appeared to be deeply ashamed of his ancestry. His skin once a warm brown colour was now pasty white like chalk and his features once well rounded and naturally handsome now a hideous parody of a transsexual Cruella DeVil. The Afro hairstyle was trained and tortured and emerged as gleaming floppy silky tresses that blew in the wind like Barbie’s shimmering locks. Thousands of Afro Americans were to lose respect for a man they had previously championed but matters far worse were to come to light in months ahead.
The stories latched onto by the British Tabloids about Bubbles the Chimp and Muscles the Boa constrictor and his hydraulic sleeping chamber were largely fuelled by Jackson himself who revelled in the attention that these eccentricities brought him. His fascination with The Elephant Man’s corpse (John Meryck) earned him much tabloid column space even if the British authorities finally refused to hand him over Meryck’s remains. Jacko’s eccentricity added to the mystique and allure of the pop star but then a more sinister, darker side to his personality began to emerge and his association with young children started a not so discreet whispering campaign. Conjecture about his sexuality had been muted as Jackson had successfully tried to present himself as a highly charged and sexy yet strangely asexual creature. He never had a girlfriend, was never seen at clubs or parties with girls of his age and had no romantic life to speak of, even for publicities sake. He hung out with a Chimpanzee and a Boa constrictor as his friends and his best friends were Steven Spielberg, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Liza Minnelli and later Macaulay Culkin.
It was his association with Culkin that had the whispers growing louder about Michael’s unhealthy interest in young boys and Jackson’s subsequent actions and lifestyle only served to fuel the fire of innuendo. Michael Jackson blanked the warning signs and was supremely confident in his ability to charm and win a situation with his innocent Peter Pan persona and used his talents to win the trust of gullible parents showering them with gifts for his dubious motivations to be able to spend days and nights on end, often sharing the same bed with his 12 year old “friends” supposedly in blissful innocence. His own sister Latoya made headlines when she made claims about her brother slinking off with young boys for hours on end and despite herculean efforts by Jacksons damage control squad, the cat was out of the bag and was to haunt and torment Jackson for the rest of his life.
His career was never to recover after allegations of sexual abuse started to surface though through the 90s he managed to deflect some of that attention with some potent hit songs and videos notably from his mid 90s collection Dangerous which attempted to restore his sagging credentials as a commercial recording artist in an age dominated by the Hip Hoppers and Mariah Carey. Increasingly obsessed with his tarnished aura he attempted once again to manipulate and buy his way out of his problems. Tens of millions were spent in order to make legal settlements and buy the problem away and it worked but only to a certain extent. He got married twice in what were transparently sham weddings but his obsession to prove himself to not be what everyone thought he was proved far too compelling and he even produced three children as further evidence of his normality though it is widely believed the children were the result of artificial insemination. The entire focus of his life changed from being a musician to being The Great Saviour of the Unfortunate Children of the World. To some it was about love and gratitude, to others it was a valiant if pathetic attempt at a cover up.
Though eventually Michael Jackson was exonerated of all the charges against him, like O. J. Simpson before him, he found that a large section of the public worldwide was not so forgiving and you would have found few parents willing to send their beloved to the Neverland Ranch for a sleep-in with the Gloved One unless they were digging for some gold themselves.
Deprived of a childhood himself, Michael Jackson somehow tried to make up for lost time by getting stuck in “child” mode for a lifetime. Though born with an innate gift for music Michael Jackson’s role was forced upon him to some extent by his father Joe Jackson with whom Michael had a very fractured relationship to say the very least. His father saw young Michael as his ticket to glory and fame and tales of beatings and humiliation were not uncommon about the Jackson household. The limelight arrived ridiculously early in life and though Michael Jackson, the bold, bristling, panther-like electric performer on stage exuded confidence it was just a mask which hid the real Michael Jackson, an insecure confused child constantly on the lookout for that special friend and for approval and acceptance. The self loathing he must have felt in order to undergo those countless surgeries and Trans-mutate into the creature he became is unfathomable.
Was he the musical genius that success suggests he was? In many ways he had an innate feel for rhythm and for music but he didn’t play any instruments while Prince composed, wrote, played and produced every single instrument on his first few classic albums and while Michael Jacksons singing was distinctive and he could sing most people under a table, he was far from being in the vocal standing of an Al Green or a Sam Cooke yet he had that something special that most other artists can only dream about. He was the most mesmerizing and innovative dancer of his era and had the savvy to put his all into the media that counted most: the Music Video of which he remained a trailblazing frontrunner. He was the consummate Showman, caught up in a vicious cycle of upping the ante until at the age of 50 when he was upping the ante to impossible heights yet running on empty physically, emotionally and financially. Perhaps it was this hype machine that proved his ultimate undoing because in trying for his This is It comeback tour he was intending to raise the bar further than ever before as a concert experience and perhaps underestimated the fact that he was a sickly 50 year old walking advertisement for the horrors of cosmetic surgery with a body literally falling apart at the seams.
Despite all the sadness and all the controversy, surgery and ugliness that surrounded the King, we need to set the debate aside about his private life and celebrate, thank and remember him for some of the most joyous moments in Pop Music history that he provided along a four decade old career right from the days when he belted out “ABC” to when he stunned the world with the most memorable video of the entire MTV age, the incomparable Thriller video. Caught up in the whirlwind of his own hype-machine he forced himself to up the ante with each new release with his ego bloating to ridiculous levels with the unearthing of the History Video which portrayed him as a towering monumental statue in true Kim Il Sung style. What a chilling twist of fate that Jackson should one day turn into a replica of his own idol and object of lurid fascination; not the towering Napoleonic hero as depicted on the cover of his History CD but the pathetic and doomed John Meryck, The Elephant Man – a Sideshow Carnival Freak hounded and ridiculed to his last breath.
There have been far greater musicians in the modern era and certainly finer vocalists but there has never been an entertainer quite like him. All followers of pop music have lost a part of their youth with the passing away of Michael Jackson. His death has been a bizarrely strange experience because it’s not just about the passing away of an artist, its more about something within all of us dying never to return. As one of those who owned “Goin’ Places” and “Destiny” before rushing out to buy “Off the Wall” the very day of its release and then telling my Rock n Roll oriented friends “See, I Told You so” upon the success of Thriller a couple of years later to the time when we all huddled around the box to watch the Premiere of the BAD Video and were dismayed at how mediocre it was. These memories will last a lifetime and most of the tunes will too. Jackson’s demise has been a profound and heartbreaking loss for legions of pop music fans all over the world and an inconsolable and irreparable one. The only way forward now is to rejoice in the legacy of his great music and his true forte, the Visual Presentation of Music on TV, in other words the Music Video of which he was and remains the undisputed master. Thank you Michael Joseph Jackson for the music and the memories and now that the swirling, dizzying hype that was your life is over, maybe you can rest in peace taking your rightful place among the brightest lights of Pop Music history and legends of Funk, Soul & Pop such as Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, James Brown and Rick James.
And now reward for reading till the very end: Thriller Taliban Style (Not for the Squeamish or Pregnant).