Michael Jackson 1958-2009: The End of an Era? – A Tribute and Retrospective.

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I was deep in slumber in the early hours of 26 June, when the sound of my phone vibrating obnoxiously stirred me from my sleep. I thought it odd that there was something so urgent at that time. I went back to sleep assured that it was just a delayed text response from someone who had not got around to replying to one I’d sent earlier. I’d set my alarm to get up early for a pray anyway so when I finally got out of bed shortly after my rude awakening I checked my phone only to see several texts – one from an unidentified number- telling me Michael Jackson had died from a suspected heart attack. They all assumed I had heard. I was understandably shocked and this was only exacerbated by being under the influence of sleep. I quickly went to share the news with my mum (Yes I still live at home, as everyone knows London rent is a mother, especially when you’re in between jobs) who herself sleeping leapt out of bed in a panic. On came BBC News 24 which had dedicated its entire programming to reports of Jackson’s death and commentary from friends and pundits. Switching on my Laptop to watch one of his videos on Youtube, the tributes had already started pouring in. Radio stations were dedicating their shows to Michael and Jackson 5 hits.

When I was younger I tried to imagine the day Jackson was to leave this world and the reaction that would ensue, but it was always too surreal to conjure. The event itself is every bit as strange. Speaking to one of my best friends, who was one of the first to break the news to me, comparisons were made with Diana Princess of Wales and Aaliyah, who in death were worshipped by some. On news of their untimely end for some moments, especially in the case of the former Princess of Wales, the world seemed to come to a standstill. My friend felt Michael’s demise wouldn’t have the impact of Diana because of the current socio-economic climate. Besides, Jackson was more infamous now than anything else due to the child abuse allegations. He anticipated sombre reflection and introspective retrospection and little more. Nonetheless I think he underestimated people’s respect for the contribution of MJ to modern culture, that hitherto and subsequently has not been paralleled and I doubt ever will be. Cynical as it might sound, my friend and I predicted tribute albums and concerts featuring the likes of JT, Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder to name a few, will come in the wake of this tragedy as means of cashing in somehow.

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Yet, how is it that a young African-American boy from the backwater of Gary, Indiana in the US come to enjoy – at least for some time – world domination? By now you would have already read more potted bio’s of MJ’s life than you’d care to mention so I won’t regurgitate them here. Instead I’ll attempt a personal reflection on why I believe the self-titled King of Pop came to be, arguably the greatest pop culture icon and brand in living memory.

We know of course MJ started life as the prodigiously talented little lead singer of the band which constituted of him and four (later five) of his brothers, The Jacksons. Influenced by the likes of James Brown and Jackie Wilson, Michael was clearly the one with the most star quality out of his siblings and I’d maintain, the only Jackson who could actually carry a tune well (If you doubt me, check out ‘2300 Jackson Street’, enough said). His voice had always been preternaturally high well past puberty and was one of his trademarks. As was his ability as a performer. MJ is and was the consummate entertainer. White Socks/black shoes, military jackets, rhinestone glove and Trilby hat et al, he mastered the psychology of the spectacle like nobody else. He appropriated dance moves from fellow artists like Jeffrey Daniels from Shalamar and the break-dancing world – and made them his own. Those who understand the technique of such moves would point out that MJ’s interpretations were not always technically up to scratch. Personally I feel his sister Janet is the most gifted and progressive dancer of the two, understanding the evolution of the art form more than her big bro, who never really got past his once-famed popping and locking moves of yesteryear. Nevertheless MJ more than anything could capture and deliver the magic of a good show better than anyone else. He was the don of media manipulation – be it the cat and mouse game played with the press who always wanted a piece of him –or exploiting new media forms as was the case back in 1981, with the inception of MTV.

As anyone born and raised in the 1980s – probably Jackson’s most successful era – would know he was everywhere! On my visits to Nigeria as a child, one of my cousins was a particular MJ nut and would imitate his moves at any given opportunity. With the release of his three best albums (commercially and artistically in my humble opinion) ‘Off The Wall’, (1979/80) the record-breaking ‘Thriller’ (1983) and ‘Bad’ (1987) in this time, and that trail-blazing performance at The Motown 25th Anniversary celebration, the decade belonged to Jackson. I used to think there was no one on earth who had not heard of MJ. I once came across a girl at primary school who claimed not to know who he was, and my best friend at the time and I were completely stumped! How was this possible? He belonged to a pantheon of megastars –a phenomenon unique to the 1980s – the triumvirate of MJ, Prince and Madonna with MJ being the greatest of the three.

A former work colleague told me of how he encountered a young lad from a village in his native Sierra Leone, with no access to a TV and very little English, who somehow knew Michael’s name and was trying to imitate his famous ‘Moonwalk’, a bastardisation of the electric glide. MJ seemed to be an integral part of everyone’s childhood at the time – and since. I know of children born within the last ten years who cite MJ as their favourite artist. I came home once, years ago to find my then toddler cousin (now ten) grabbing his crutch and yelping whilst trying to balance on his toes mumbling some baby talk about being ‘Michael Japson’. He’d popped round with his mum for a visit and spent all day with my sister watching MJ classics on music television. This is the far reaching influence of MJ.

The ground-breaking ‘Thriller’ video – a mini-film unlike anything anyone had seen before- launched him into the stratosphere and it exemplifies MJ’s innovation and shrewdness. I couldn’t personally watch it until I was ten, because it terrified me so much. Nevertheless it meant Jackson had acquired a status that even the likes of Elvis had not attained in their lifetime. MJ videos became massive media events with channels vying for exclusive rights to show them first. He had respected directors queuing to work on his visual projects. I remember at six years old staying up way past my bedtime to see the Channel 4 exclusive of the Martin Scorsese-directed ‘Bad’ video which was preceded by a ‘story-so-far’ documentary on Michael. As MJ leapt around the New York subway in S&M gear, ripping out air-vents, and pointing his finger at Wesley Snipes, I couldn’t help but wonder why Jackson now resembled a man of mixed-race origin. Last thing I could remember he was milk chocolate brown. The only explanation my 6-year old brain could muster was that Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson and as he’d metamorphosised so much in the Thriller video, he could do it in real life too. It was later on I learned from my mum of the practice of bleaching one’s skin – something Michael Jackson often denied attributing his ever-brighter hue to the skin condition Vitiligo.

A year after seeing ‘Bad’ for the first time, the ‘Smooth Criminal’ (possibly my favourite by MJ) video was shown on BBC2 for the first time on terrestrial TV and it was all we could talk and sing about at school the next day. Ditto, the premiere of ‘Black and White’ and ‘Remember the time’ a few years later.

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Brands like Pepsi Cola were only too happy to do business with MJ. Even the makers of ‘The Simpson’s’ got in on the act and MJ is rumoured to have penned ‘Do the Bartman’ as well as supplied the voice of a deluded Caucasian mental patient convinced he’s the King of Pop in a famous episode of the show. Jackson is often cited as the artist who kicked off the trend of megastars selling themselves as brands. Dare I speak of his artistic influence on the myriads of Pop and R&B artist since the early 80s? Justin Timberlake, Usher, Destiny’s Child, Sisqo and Ginuwine are just a few names that come to mind that have based their stage performances and routines on the man himself. And some of the more adventurous tenor singers, Timberlake and Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon amongst them, have ventured to try and replicate his trademark high pitched voice. Although I’m no fan or expert on Ne-yo I could swear almost every song of his I’ve heard sounds like he had MJ in mind to sing them but was rebuffed. The chord progression and BGVs on the Ne-yo penned ‘Let Me Love You’ sung by the excellent Mario Barrett, are straight-up Michael. Artists such as LL Cool J, Mariah Carey, SWV and Rihanna, have sampled or covered his records to great effect (well maybe not Rihanna) achieving big hits of their own in the process.

Perhaps most notably, Michael revolutionised the format of the stadium concert with the Bad and Dangerous tour. I was privileged to see MJ live at Wembley back in August 1992, tickets to which were a present from my mum for my 11th birthday that summer. Jackson raised the bar – and punters expectations – of such gigs. Once he had done it you expected ALL your favourite artists to feature pyrotechnics and complex choreography in their shows. For a while it was a serious anti-climax for me to see an artist merely stand on stage and sing their song. Where were all the costume changes and gravity defying dance routines (think the scene where all the dancers lean so far forward without falling over in the ‘Smooth Criminal’ video)?

But MJ was not just a very clued-up businessman and media mogul. He was actually very good at what he did. His dancing and videos have often eclipsed what an accomplished vocalist he was. With his crazy range, distinctive staccatoed phrasing and strange diction, his was a voice you couldn’t mistake for someone else’s. That’s one of the reasons why ‘Off The Wall’ remains my favourite album of Jackson’s. Apart from it being the most funk and soul influenced of his records and the onset of a wonderful creative relationship with Quincy Jones– I feel it best showcases what a beautiful and versatile voice he had. He sounded as good live as on record too. His first three solo albums were a conveyor belt of hits and classic tunes. Who doesn’t love singing the ‘Mama-say-mama-sah-ma-ma-coo-sah’ bit of ‘Wanna be starting something?’ Or wailing the chorus of ‘Liberian Girl’?

Yet Michael seemed to lose his way post-‘Bad’ – partly because he ended his collaborations with Quincy Jones and partly because his attempts to enter the 1990s with a more contemporary sound via the help of the likes of Teddy Riley, were only half-hearted in my eyes, with the exception of ‘Remember the Time’. It’s as if Jackson was stuck in the glory days of the 1980s and felt he could continue on the same trajectory forgetting that time stands still for no-one, not even MJ. ‘Dangerous’ released late 1991 was the first Michael LP that had filler tracks, to my chagrin. After that album very few songs from MJ impressed me much. His collabo with R.Kelly ‘You are not alone’ failed to live up to my expectations and only ‘Stranger in Moscow’, ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ and ‘You Rock My World’ captured some of his old flair. Otherwise the magic, at least as far as this former fan was concerned, was starting to fade.

The 1990s in general were a less auspicious time for Michael. Those rumours of child abuse first made by Jordie Chandler in 1993 hailed the downfall, at least as far as his hitherto spotless albeit eccentric reputation was concerned, for this giant of the Music world. In 1996, Jarvis Cocker – lead singer of Britpop group Pulp, gate-crashed Jacko’s performance at the Brit awards; his motivation being the not entirely unfair claim that MJ was suffering from a Messiah Complex and that was Cocker’s mode of protest.
Fast forward to the 21st century and things fared little better for MJ. He released ‘Invincible’ to mixed reviews in 2001 despite much excitement over the video for the Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins-produced lead single, ‘You Rock My World’ and the album track ‘Butterflies’ written by Floetry and loved by many a soul/R&B fan. His performance with N*Sync at the MTV Video Awards in 2001 looked stale and tired. By the time the notorious Martin Bashir documentary came around in early 2003, followed by MJ’s rebuttal, the circus that was Michael Jackson’s life had turned into a veritable freak show. It wasn’t long after that more sexual molestation rumours surfaced and between this and his baby-dangling antics, increasingly strange facial transformation and apparent racial identity crisis, even some of his staunch fans fell off the MJ bandwagon. In my pre-teens and early adolescence I got into many a dispute with those who wished to wind me up by slating Michael. Fast forward 10 years and no such loyalty could be found on my part.

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MJ was exonerated of all charges of child abuse in 2006 following a lengthy court case but the damage to his name had been done. Bar a few vehemently faithful fans, MJ was more or less a social pariah. It was therefore a big surprise to some when he announced a new tour scheduled for summer 2009, playing several dates at the 02 Arena in London amongst others. An even bigger surprise was that he went on to sell 1 million tickets for these shows. A mind-boggling amount even by Michael’s standards. Many were curious to see whether he still had it; could he deliver the goods? I suppose now, we’ll never know.

Only Michael and his alleged victims will ever really know if those rumours of molestation were true. I don’t wish to undermine those who have undergone such trauma but it is important to separate Michael the man and his fallibilities from Michael the artist, perhaps the greatest performer the world has ever seen. My aforementioned cousin seems to have separated ‘black’ Michael from ‘white’ Michael in his mind. One being a great contributor to popular music in his heyday, the other a rather frightening, glow in the dark circus attraction. Sexual malfeasance notwithstanding, a flawed man MJ was, without a doubt. His is a cautionary tale that we human beings were never made to be treated like gods on earth- it does funny things to the brain. However only a fool would deny that Michael was also the most influential and celebrated Pop icon and his unforgettable impact on music and popular culture will outlive the man for generations. Everyone, even those self-confessed non-MJ fans, will have a favourite song by the Late King of Pop.

I imagine for several weeks, maybe even months to come, this loss to the music industry, contemporary culture and the world will be all anyone can talk about.

By Tola Ositelu.

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