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The Aviator, Part I: Michael Jackson

Can you just imagine digging up the King,
Begging him to sing
About the heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned….
He went walking on the water with his pills.

Warren Zevon, “Jesus Mentioned”

broad_inaugural_12When Elvis left the building a generation ago at what seemed then the very advanced age of 42, I loved a few of his songs, but mainly considered him a bloated, Eskimo Pie-addicted man-cartoon that some kids’ parents liked. Only later did I discover what the fuss was about: the Memphis truck driver getting “real, real gone” in the magical Sun Sessions; the swaggering sex machine; the out-of-control mystery train that not even a dozen corny movies and a thousand prescriptions could completely derail. No wonder even Nixon cited Elvis as the explanation for the Bermuda triangle (“Elvis needs boats”).

This week, at the young, tender age of 50, another larger-than-life man-cartoon made an inglorious exit. Like Presley, Michael Jackson walked on water, first with his brilliance and later with his pills. And as with Elvis, I dismissed most of what he did long before he left. But MJ was an arresting presence even for those who, like me, did my best to ignore him. Elvis even seems an inadequate comparison for his stratospheric global reach. A closer comparison might be Howard Hughes, another man-child of erratic brilliance, whose master aviator’s soaring heights later gave way to reclusive paranoia and heartbreaking tailspin.

For now I will set aside the aspects of Michael Jackson’s life better left to the justice system and to his maker. As an admiring non-fan, I’ll count down five of his huge accomplishments:

1. He Liberated Eastern Europe from Communism.

Who do you think accomplished this, Reagan and Gorbachev? Please. The invasion of Afghanistan was bad enough, but the Kremlin’s most self-destructive act was its 1985 decision not to censor a vinyl version of Thriller. Long before MJ built a 35-foot statue of himself in Prague, his invisible gloved hand shook like a thousand Adam Smiths, securing our opportunity to visit McDonald’s in Vilnius.

Michael Jackson, HIStory Teaser

2. He Made Globalization Irreversible.

Don’t blame him for the shortcomings of NAFTA, GATT and world-beat fusion music. The new century would still be inconceivable without globalization, and MJ was its mascot. If there’s any doubt, listen to Caetano Veloso’s version of “Billie Jean.”

Caetano Veloso, “Billie Jean”

3. He Stopped Quincy Jones from Making Bad Solo Records.

Quincy Jones has a great ear for talent other than his own. Long ago, Q made five-martini bachelor pad classics like “Soul Bossa Nova,” which featured the amazing Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But by the late seventies, he’d spent far too much time making lame film soundtracks. Soon after Q started mentoring MJ, he woke up and started sailing the high seas of Eighties soul-funk cheese, producing bizarre period classics such as 1981’s The Dude, which even features a zany cover of a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads sideman Chaz Jankel. The Dude abides.

Quincy Jones, “Soul Bossa Nova”

Soul Bossa Nova (Tema da Nike) – Quincy Jones

4. His Voice Was Better than Your Favorite Singer’s Voice.

Maybe that’s stretching it. Still, once you get beyond the tabloid crassness, Jackson had a voice so divinely inspired that comparisons are almost unfair. Production values and taste are things that can be questioned, and I’ve criticized those in most of his work. But his abilities were already astonishing by the time the J5 featured his preteen lead on “I Want You Back.”

Jackson Five, “I Want You Back”

5. He was Jackie Robinson in Aviator Glasses.

It’s hard to describe how segregated most of the pop mainstream was at the end of the seventies, with much of white America (including me) still in “Disco Sucks” mode and rap still emerging from the underground. Off the Wall and Thriller shattered that rigidity. If the path that followed has had some cracks in the pavement—like having to endure Fred Durst limply pretending to be funky—MJ still helped prepare the country and the planet for their multiracial future.

Indian version of “Thriller”


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From → Diatribes, Slow Jams

4 Comments
  1. Dan Haig permalink

    Disco did suck, if not necessarily for the sonic nature of the stuff. Disco was all about cheezy pickup scenes and the promotion of superficiality in general. Michael Jackson’s stuff was, to me, very much Disco, and I thought it sucked, regardless of his prodigious talents. I don’t care how somebody dances when I buy a record (ok, so nobody buys records anymore, you get the point).

    Funk, on the other hand, while sharing a good patch of the same sonic turf as Disco, did not and does not suck. Funk is not all about cheezy pickup scenes, it’s a much deeper thing. The Jackson 5 were funky!

    RIP Michael, you bloody great freak.

  2. shacker permalink

    If someone had asked me last week whether I know anyone who had ever liked or listened to Michael Jackson, I would have said no. So watching the world react to MJ’s death has been a very strange experience for me. Suddenly it’s as if society is full of closet Michael Jackson fans, just waiting to be awakened. Even the people you thought you knew for decades are turning out to have secretly loved Jackson’s work all along.

    Suddenly I wake up and discover that all these people who lived through the same 80s as me were neither indifferent to nor actively disliking his music, but actually liking it. I never in a million years would have guessed that about my own friends. Was it some kind of secret passion everyone kept to themselves? I *assumed* that most people I know/knew felt the same way about 80s disco as I did. As evidenced by the hot water I got into on Facebook recently after calling Jackson’s 80s/90s hits “atrocious,” I could not have been more wrong.

    I’ve never understood how MJ’s music earned him the mantle “King of Pop.” Yes, his childhood music was heartbreakingly sweet and wonderful. Yes he was an amazing dancer. And yes, he had an influence on music to come. But no, I don’t see what’s likable about his 80s/90s disco-pop. That’s 100% subjective of course; I just thought most people shared my opinion on this.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect people who like his music. I’m just surprised to learn that they do. Thank god for friends.

  3. Roger permalink

    Dan and Scot, I get what you’re saying about funk and disco, and I didn’t spend the Eighties moonwalking to MJ. Back then, I might have named Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello as the King of Pop. But here are a few things to think about:

    1. The line between funk and disco is sometimes fuzzy. I remember some musical comrades dismissing George Clinton and Grandmaster Flash as “disco.” The Clash were accused of “selling out to disco” for starting Sandinista with a funk/ rap number, even though it’s the album’s angriest song. Our writers at this site remain divided over whether Prince is funk or disco.

    2. Music lovers haven’t just suddenly admitted love for MJ. Although I didn’t vote for Thriller in the 1983 Village Voice critics’ poll, it won in a landslide, and I do think (stylistic criticisms aside) that its effect on racial and geographic divides was remarkable.

    3. I’d place Off the Wall (and to a lesser extent, Thriller) in the same category as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours: i.e., not really my style, but an unusually well-made representation of that moment in pop music. Boasting about how I was busy listening to Richard Thompson and Ornette Coleman would have seemed snooty. Instead, I tried to find context for my ambivalence about MJ’s musical and cultural legacy.

    4. I find the “cheesy pickup scenes” as distasteful as Dan does. But if we avoided all who took part in them, our record collections might be pretty thin. Dizzy Gillespie once tried to hit on my sister. Robert Christgau recently recalled Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn’s great story about a member of the Descendents who had asked him where he could find a groupie for some action. Finn’s response: “If we knew that, what would we be doing at a Descendents show?”

  4. shacker permalink

    No doubt there can be a fuzzy line between funk and disco, but MJ didn’t really dip a toe into funk waters, did he? But I think that for some people, that wouldn’t be the right question to ask. Those people are measuring MJ’s significance in terms other than what category bucket his music gets thrown into. I don’t dislike MJ’s music because it’s disco-y, I dislike it because it feels thin. But that’s just me.

    I hadn’t seen Thriller until two nights ago so can’t comment on that.

    At the end of the day one can’t convince anyone else that any particular music is good or bad, “worthy” or not. All I can say that’s “true” is that I don’t dig MJ’s sound. Glitter ain’t my thing. I hope I can say that without it being perceived that the music I listen to is more “serious” or “significant” – I love simple from Leadbelly to the Trashmen. You should be able to say you prefer Thompson or Ornette without fear of being branded snooty – that’s not what it’s about. The question is whether MJ’s music feels real and true. It sure doesn’t to me.

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