As I sit here on the bus, composing this piece on my BlackBerry, the guy next to me has his headphones up real loud. He can’t be that old, 14 or so. I’d usually be annoyed, but today I’m not. It’s ‘Billie Jean’. It’s such a familiar and distinctive sound, I’d spot it from a mile off. There’s not many souls who wouldn’t recognise that drum intro, bass line and 3 note synth motif. Even though the album is as old as I am, Michael Jackson is so engrained in music culture it’s hard to separate him from music itself.
Michael was known as the ‘King of Pop’ and he signified all that Pop really is. He was a revolutionary superstar, the likes of which we will probably never see again. Everything he did in his musical career was iconic, each thing an entity all unto itself.
I find it hard to know where to begin a tribute to MJ. I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said, which in itself is a testament to his magnitude. I have personal memories of MJ and his music and how it has impacted on me personally throughout my life. I have facts about him having the biggest selling album, breaking such and such world record, his childhood, his rise to superstardom, the awards and the accolades. There is honestly so much I could say but, truth be told, I’d run out of superlatives and it’s all common knowledge anyway. You already know so much about Michael Jackson, it’s like he’s a member of your family or a close friend.
The tributes are ten a penny. There are so many people I feel are better qualified than me to talk about him, those who have real life testimonies, people who worked with him, people who met him. I consider myself unfortunate not to be one of them. Although, I like millions the world over was fortunate enough to experience him, both at his highest and at his lowest.
Throughout all this, I never waivered in my appreciation for him. I never got caught up in the media hype, or all the stories, gossip and rumours. And there was a simple reason for that- I didn’t know him like that. But I knew his music, and if his music was a reflection of him, then I guess we all can consider ourselves lucky enough to have known him. We, through his music, experienced him; his life, his vulnerabilities, his anger, his pain and his joy. And no matter what any one person says or thinks about MJ, it all comes secondary to his music.
I, like so many, grew up listening to MJ, and continually listen to MJ. Let’s, for arguments sake, takeaway all the hype, the rumours, EVERYTHING – God damn it – even the man himself – and the real substance lies in this random kid sitting next to me on the bus listening to Billie Jean. It lies in the drum intro, the bassline, the synth motif. It lies in the tiles that light up as MJ walks, the moonwalk he debuted at the Motown 25th Anniversary, the kicks, the spins and the crotch grabbing. It lies in the vocal hiccups, the “HEE-hee” and the “Chamon”. It lies in the red leather jacket with the zipper, the white socks, the hat, the white vest, the open shirt, the glove. All of these are cultural signifiers MJ has left with us, synonymous with him and instantly recognizable as his trademarks. They show us MJ was, and is still the King of Pop.
These signs, icons in themselves, are instantly recognizable worldwide. So many owe so much to him. Whole careers have been built on impersonating and taking what Michael Jackson taught and moving it into the future. The quest is to make it current, fresh, exciting and marketable. But the tribute to Michael Jackson lies in the fact that none of the current, or perhaps any future performer can top him.
I find it very hard to pinpoint any one thing in Pop music culture today that Michael Jackson didn’t pioneer. Michael Jackson was undeniably influenced by many before him and certain peers. But often, I feel, there is a lot MJ is not credited for. For me, MJ is the vessel through which black music was crystallized and sold to the masses. He managed to take all of his influences, wrap them up and sell them to the world, each of them having such a distinct part of him stamped on them, that it becomes unintelligible for us to separate them from music and pop music culture as we know it.
The art that Michael Jackson injected into music videos is often taken for granted. So many videos involve choreographed dancing now, it’s insane. The fact that he turned them into mini movies (or full length feature films such as Moonwalker) is genius in itself, as it was a relatively new form back then. He seemed to fast forward it so much, people are still trying to catch up with it. His vision to use videos as a promotional tool also revolutionized the way music was marketed; music videos became something that was almost necessary to succeed in music, especially after MJ had set the bar so high.
His live performances became extensions of his videos, the spectacle of them often akin to those of the videos themselves. MJ’s dance characteristics are probably the single most recognizable characteristics in the world. He pioneered such revolutionary styles in dancing, bringing together such a wide range of influences, it’s impossible for me to sum it up. I’d be here for days.
As a business man, the Diddys of today owe a lot to MJ. Not only being extremely shrewd in his own royalty dealings and back catalogue, he famously invested in The Beatles catalogue, showing he had great business acumen. This, aside from the various merchandise sales he oversaw, went a long way in showing us that he was smarter than the average pop star. MJ, it seems, understood quite well how to market himself and his music and many of today’s music business successes take their cue from his savvy.
And what of the philanthropy? Michael pretty much grew a conscience inside of most people with his humanitarian and charity work. He showed a capitalist society that, yes, he had money, but he wasn’t afraid it seems to give back, and was one of the biggest donaters to charity in the world. He also co-wrote ‘We Are The World’ and engaged in other humanitarian work to highlight those less fortunate around the world. He has been credited with supporting more charities than any other artist.
Michael Jackson also did a lot to break down racial barriers. Amongst my favourite tributes I have seen so far, is this one. It goes someway towards proving the point that Michael Jackson’s music has, and continues to touch so many is this wonderful rendition of ‘Man In The Mirror’ by a group of school kids. All colours, all races.
No doubt you all know that he was the first black artist to be played on MTV, not only that, but helped MTV’s popularity as a result. But Michael’s music transcended racial barriers further through it’s universal appeal, with countries like India and Japan embracing his music like it was their own traditional music. Black music had perhaps never been as popular before worldwide, and MJ’s Disco-Funk-Rock-R&B-Soul fusion put all these styles across to millions of people of all races across the world.
And, as I said before, it’s all about his music. Michael was an exceptionally gifted musician. His use of his voice as an instrument is probably overlooked by many, but he was everything a vocalist should aspire to be. Michael had not only a ridiculous vocal range, but the innate ability to paint you a picture with his voice. From the quivers at the beginning of ‘Human Nature’ to the angry delivery in ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ Michael Jackson was perhaps the most expressive singer that ever graced a microphone, most certainly in Pop music. The phrasing and timbre he selected from his wonderful pallete to convey any one of the vast range of human emotions we feel, not only resonated with us, but was something for us to be in awe of.
His vocal style is so distinctive, you’ll often many Michael ‘isms’ are imitated by those in the world of Pop and R&B. Not only that, but his ability to beatbox and create a variety of sounds with his mouth, which were sometimes mistaken as instruments on tracks, was phenomenal. It seemed as if some of the sounds he made were so stupid, yet so genius all at once. Only Michael had the vision and belief to put them in his music, like it would be wrong if they weren’t there. This gave birth to some of the most successful modern day producers, such as Timbaland and The Neptunes, using this technique on their recordings.
Much credit is given, and rightly so, to Quincy Jones for the musical success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album and the two albums it was sandwiched between, but Michael Jackson was hugely involved in the music creation process, be it writing or production.
A lot has been said about the recording and production of ‘Billie Jean’; apparently Quincy believed it to be too weak, and MJ wanted co-production credits on it because he thought the demo sounded just like the finished product. They fell out over it all, but ‘Billie Jean’ made the cut. Although not my favourite song on the album, it is worth mentioning, not only because of it’s impact, but because of the fact that, perhaps, this was so much a Michael Jackson song, it was hardly anything to do with anyone else.
Quincy did a superb job as usual on the production and Bruce Swedien engineered it to perfection, but the real magic lay in the hands of Michael. Let’s be real, Michael’s home demo sounds so much like the finished product, it’s ridiculous, which just goes to show just how much Michael’s genius is underrated, as I’m sure many people would accredit a lot of it’s success to the production team. Billie Jean is arguably his most recognizable song in the popular domain and still get plays like crazy the world over like its going out of fashion. But it isn’t. And in that is the biggest tribute to Michael Jackson.
In fact, nothing MJ did is going out of fashion. Looking back over everything I’ve mentioned, Michael Jackson is still as relevant in pop culture as he was when he first made his mark. His music lives on. As someone who never met or worked with Michael Jackson, I may not have a story to tell you about how he was when I met him, or how much of a great experience it was to work with him. I leave those anecdotes to be relived by those who have, such as Marsha Ambrosius. But as a lover of music, I can tell you I know him and he lives on everyday not only through his own music but through music as a whole. So many of today’s artists and Pop music is indebted to him, as are so many other genres and indeed facets of the industry as a whole. We’re lucky to have witnessed first hand the awe inspiring Michael Jackson.
In 2007, MJ said in an interview with Ebony magazine, “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it, my music, I know I will live forever.”
So, we keep on and we ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til We Get Enough.’ And in all truth, it will probably never be enough.
RIP Michael Joseph Jackson, King of Pop.