Damn…I can’t believe just how quickly that title came to me. It doesn’t matter to me that everyone and their cousin will have something to say, because as far as I’m concerned, they SHOULD. To quote a friend, “they bettah DO!” Michael Jackson, for all of his quirks, eccentricities, publicity stunts, and gaudiness, is a legend. I use “is” because that legend does not disappear today. In fact, it grows.
The Jackson 5 had their first hit the year I was born. 40 years on, children born in a completely different century still know “I Want You Back” and “ABC”. Those are my first memories of Michael Jackson, although the first song that really impacted me was “Never Can Say Goodbye”, which came out in 1971. Even as a child of 9 or 10, I got it. That voice, that talent, that connection. How could someone so young get that? And yet, he did. Even singing Christmas songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, Michael had an amazing way to project and connect that I doubt I could find any other artist of his generation to do.
The Jackson 5 became the Jacksons, and I was right with them. “Shake Your Body”, “Enjoy Yourself”, “Lovely One”, and even “Blame It On the Boogie” were all jams. Songs I didn’t even know at the time came back to me eventually, such as “Can You Feel It”. If you want to talk about an epic pop/R&B song, that’s the one. All of that just prepped Michael for a future that I doubt even he could have predicted.
“Off the Wall”, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”, “She’s Out of My Life”, and especially “Rock With You”…without knowing it, my musical world was shifting along with Michael’s. There’s life in a record that you truly get. It seems to breathe on its own, and the drum beat might as well have blood coursing though it. “Rock” not only lived and breathed, it seemed to imbibe me with an energy that I would become more familiar with as I got older. It’s an energy that grows on itself and is hard to predict, but you know it when you’re in it. But even at that point, it was still just a song. Then Motown 25 came along, and I was a goner.
There are moments in my life that I will remember as long as I live: the moment it hit me that my Grandma was no longer with us, that the Challenger exploded, that I drove every one of my possessions across the city line into Denver. Michael’s performance of “Billie Jean” on Motown 25 is right up there. When Michael stepped to center stage while his brothers left the stage, you just knew something was going to happen. But that’s an understatement. When he let loose the moonwalk, I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the screen. The performance was too short, and no one could drag me away from the screen until the show was completely over and I was absolutely sure I wasn’t going to miss anything else. I was a persistent kid, to say the least.
“The Girl Is Mine” has to be the lamest lead single for a hit album in the history of pop music. Who really cared? I mean, two stars singing a duet, but really, didn’t more people still care about McCartney at that point? “Billie Jean”, on the other hand, while not an Earth-shattering song, still set the world on fire. The performance, the video, the song…it’s an experience that only happens a couple of times in a lifetime. I wanted the red jacket, I wanted a glove, I wanted to be connected in any way possible, but the music was really my only way. (For more about my Thriller period, go here.)
It doesn’t seem possible that Bad hit the shelves in 1987, because Michael never left the airwaves. (A personal favorite part of mine was “Torture”, from the Jacksons record Victory) Michael could have recorded lullabies, and it would have been an instant smash, but instead, he pushed his sound further toward the center of R&B and Pop. Folks hadn’t heard tracks like “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal” before, and they ate it up. Just to stress the impact of Bad, the first FIVE singles went to #1, and the other two went to #11 and #7. 30 millions copies sold worldwide. Tour grossed a then-record $125 million. Crazy.
1991 brought Dangerous to the world, and for me, this was his creative peak. “Remember the Time” is in my Top 5 tracks by him, and I felt like he had done a combination evolving his sound while remaining current and up with the trends of the day. HIStory wasn’t as much of a success for me, but “You Are Not Alone” proved that Michael still had it. Even a remix album like Blood on the Dancefloor, which could have just ridden on the coattails of the hits that preceded, instead came hard with the title cut, a jam that was sadly overlooked in its time.
Michael Jackson’s star may have been tarnished over the years, but I believe that many have lost sight of all of the good that he brought to the world through his music and actions. I’m not making excuses for what people have said he did, and we may never know for sure how things went down. But for me, Michael opened my eyes to not only the diversity of music, but also the diversity of people. He wasn’t afraid to be different, and he encouraged others to be themselves, rather than conform. If anyone wants to find fault with that, have at it. My choice is to remain positive, and build off the strengths of his legacy. Bashing his past does no one any good right now.