I’ll build a world for two.

June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson is dead.

I would have posted something sooner, but like CNN, I wanted to wait and make sure I had confirmation before just taking what TMZ had its word.

Actually, the reason I missed out was because when the news broke, I was sitting in the Wisconsin Capitol waiting for six state lawmakers to try to reach a near-last second agreement on the state’s 2009-11 budget. I did have my laptop with me so I followed the story as it broke.

“Oh,” I reported to a room containing only a few other reporters and scattered legislative pages. “Michael Jackson’s dead.”

I wasn’t really surprised or really impacted by the news. It was more of a “Huh, how do you like that?” remark. Apparently I was even smiling somewhat when I said it. Because one of the pages’ eyes grew to about half the size of her face and demanded to know if I was telling the truth and how it happened.

“Cardiac arrest, it seems,” I said, somewhat shocked by her shock.

She burst into tears. This made me uncomfortably smile.

“WHY ARE YOU SMILING?” she demanded.

“I’m — I don’t know! I’m not happy he died! I’m just wondering! How would YOU write his obituary?!”

She left the room and the rest of us emotionally-warped reporters began discussing trying to write a Michael Jackson obituary. We also joked about it.

So when people ask me where I was when I learned Michael Jackson died…

I know, it’s awful. Or at least it sounds awful. But the thing about Michael Jackson is that he did so much for the better part of the last 20 years to torpedo his public image  that it’s hard NOT to look at the guy with some amount of disappointment.

While the Internet when into full-scale up-to-second updates basically reporting every possible celebrity Twitter on the news (God, I f*cking hate Twitter), I started reading through the early obits that revered his genius from a musical and entertainment standpoint.

It’s hard to argue. He made the largest selling album of all time. Even at his weirdest, he was the magnet everybody could set their pop culture compass to. His biggest songs are as commonplace in people’s hearts and minds as are memories of the best summer vacation ever.

I was only eight days old when Thriller was released, so of course I could not give you insight on its cultural impact. But I remember being five years of age when everyone was crazy for Bad. And I was nine when the videos he did for the Dangerous singles blew everybody’s f*cking minds. If it wasn’t that morphing technique in “Black or White,” it was the use of Michael Jordan in “Jam” or Eddie Murphy in “Remember the Time.” You could make fun of the guy’s nose, overt morphing into a hybrid of his mother and Elizabeth Taylor and changing skin color all you wanted, but you knew his songs. And you probably liked a few of them.

Significant artist of our time? Undoubtedly. The most? Eh…

See there was THAT guy, but what you can’t forget is that there was also a guy who faced two high profile child-molestation charges in the span of 11 years.  This was a guy who wanted to build a giant robotic version of himself to wander the desert around Las Vegas shooting off lazer beams. This was a guy who was absolutely out of touch with reality.  “It was all about love,” “He just loved the innocence of children,” “He’s been under the spotlight since he was seven years old,” blah blah blah. There’s an area where you can say, “Well, imagine that kind of constant attention, you’d probably go a little crazy too.” That’s understadable. But there are also people — you’ve known them since your first grade class — who are deliberately weird just for the kick of being deliberately weird. And Michael Jackson was deliberately weird. He lied about obvious plastic surgery, he took unimaginable lengths to publicly inflate his own ego and even after a public onslaught of criticism for being possibly too friendly with children, he never thought, “Yeah, maybe that’s kind of stupid to let them in my bed.” I mean if you’re gonna dangle your baby off a hotel balcony, what reason at that point is there to drape a wash cloth over his face?

And yet, documentaries done simply for the shock value of highlight his weirdness, such as “Living With Michael Jackson” never prompted him to go out and reprove himself. Instead he would just reissue his back catalogue every other year, find new artists to lend “yeahs” and “oh yeahs” to old classics and make big f*cking announcements that he could never back up.

Who really thought he was gonna pull off 50 dates in London this summer? If a guy has something to prove, why do you announce 50 dates in one place? If you wanna do 50 dates, do a tour. But at this point, we didn’t even need that. We would’ve liked one really f*cking good show or a new album with at least three good songs. And don’t tell me that overblown 2001 Madison Square Garden “tribute to myself” show was that good. That was uncomfortable to watch. Uncomfortable.

I was talking with a friend this morning who remarked that she just kept holding out hope that Michael would be able to rebound. It would’ve been nice. But we’d been waiting for a rebound since 1993. At some point, you know…

But as with all passing artists, there’s a wealth of material to go back to. And like everyone, I’ve got great memories associated with a bunch of Michael Jackson songs. For this month’s Friday Five, here’s a tribute.

(Strangely enough, all of these tracks are the second cut on their respective albums — total coincidence that kind of made me scratch my head)


The Friday Five
Michael Jackson Memories

The Jackson Five – One More Chance
This is a cut off the ABC album that I heard for the first time at a friend’s place shortly after my first girlfriend dumped me. Of course, in that kind of situation, you take every song way too seriously, but something about this (and the fact that it seemed to identify with the young love thing — if only in voice rather than lyrical content) kind of hit me. “What is this?” I asked my friend. “The Jackson Five,” she said, making me reply, “Oh yeah, of course.” Even though I probably listened to the Beatles’ “I Need You” way more in the wake of that breakup, this got a lot of plays. Oh, eighth grade love… what hath thou done? Now I listen to it and I just love the 70s R&B of it all — listen to that bassline.

Michael Jackson – I Wanna Be Where You Are
A lot of people think Michael’s first solo album was 1979’s album, but technically it was 1972’s Got To Be There, and this cut was easily the record’s highlight. The first time I heard this was on that made-for-TV movie about the Jackson family that ABC aired in 1992 — I remember some review remarking that the network obviously subscribed to the notion that all black children look alike since none of the actors vaguely resembled their real life counterparts — and I always thought it was a good tune, but could never find the track on any Jackson Five records. How the hell was I supposed to know he was cutting solo records at that time? The miniseries never told me that. Regardless, this is one of the all time great love songs — I dated a girl awhile ago and put this on some mix I made for her (I know, I know), and even she was saying, “I’d never heard this before, but this is easily my favorite song on here.” Unbeatable.

Michael Jackson – Rock With You
I still argue that Off the Wall is Michael’s finest solo album — Thriller sales figures be damned. And that’s because of the drive, ambition and sound of it. A lot of it is due to Quincy Jones, who produced the affair, but this is really what great late 1970s soul sounded like. Sure, it teetered a bit into disco territory, but it also had a bit of funk to round it out, and Michael was coming into his adult voice and he sounded excited about it. This is Michael’s finest three minutes and forty seconds. The most contagious, sexy, perfect thing he ever did. There is not one wasted not or vocal yelp here.

Michael Jackson – The Way You Make Me Feel
It was 1991 that my dad got the first family car to have tape deck in it — a white Chrysler LeBaron convertible, and that was a big f*cking deal, because it just meant we could actually control the music on the car speakers. Bad was one of the tapes that my father had — and he really liked the album, which I know kind of realize is interesting. I’ll have to talk to him about that. He loved “Smooth Criminal.” I did too, but “The Way You Make Me Feel” was always my favorite. Just so hooky. And Alien Ant Farm never got around to ruining it. I caught the video last night as music video channel actually reverted to the practice of showing videos (gasp!) in tribute to Michael. Seriously, how many times does he do that “outline female body, then do unsubtle pelvic thrusts into outline” dance move? How many kids got away with doing that? Can you imagine their mothers? “JOHNNY! WHERE DID YOU LEARN THAT?!” “Michael Jackson.” “Oh. OK.” Listen to it now, you can’t ignore the godawful ’80s synth production, but from a songwriting standpoint, this has all the trademarks of a 1950s R&B classic.

Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson – Say Say Say
I liked Michael Jackson, before I like the Beatles, but when I got into the Beatles at the age of ten, there was NOTHING else I listened to for years. Strangely enough, it took me awhile to find the McCartney/Jackson duets, but when I found this one, I listened to it over and over and over again. Everyone rips on “The Girl is Mine,” and perhaps justifiably so — it is Thriller’s weakest link. Maybe it was a bit of cunning on Paul’s part to keep the best of his and Michael’s three collaborations on his otherwise underwhelming Pipes of Peace album. Of course, the third, “The Man,” is just ridiculous as well, but “Say Say Say” was enough to give Macca the kind of singles chart success he would never see again. Another silly video — why is Linda so willing to be in the bed with Paul and Michael clowing around in bathrobes around her? Why is Michael lustfully chasing his sister? I dunno. But from a tune standpoint, you can’t argue with this one. The pop sensibilities between the two men should have been able to produce two more songs of this caliber, but I guess it’s one of life’s eternally mysteries that we instead got “The Girl is Mine” and “The Man.”

So there’s that, the great music. But just so we don’t get too oversentimental here — I leave you with this. NME’s review of 2001’s Invincible album. The greatest album review I have ever read.

Michael Jackson: Invincible
6 out of 10
By Mark Beaumont

NME, Oct. 30, 2001

Ten years on from ‘Dangerous’ and the tabloid vultures are circling over the skeletal remains of ape-loving, oxygen-tank-residing, legally-not-a-paedophile, recovering black man and Lionel Blair of squeakpop Michael ‘Actually Quite Scary Now’ Jackson. His ace ‘You Rock My World’ comeback stiffed at a disastrous Number Two, and all his hot young credibility tickets have deserted his charity single like rats deserting a sinking bone structure.

Which is brilliant, obviously. We need our pop stars to be walking car crashes: delusional and insane ego tornados (Jackson must be the only man on earth who thinks he looks like the cover ‘photo’) making records like ‘Invincible’ (because you are, Michael, yes you are). It’s pompous, desperate, laughably self-reverential, two hours too long and dusted sparingly with genius.

Make no mistake, a good half of ‘Invincible’ rocks bells. ‘Speechless’ is a Grease finale gut-wallop of a ballad with a choir of heavenly Michael’s hovering on high. ‘2000 Watts’, ‘Heartbreaker’ and the title track adroitly meld hiphop, Britney and Eminem in the way that an aging pop icon still wanting to appeal to teenagers should. Plus the intro to disco classic ‘You Rock My World’ – in which Jacko pointedly informs Chris Tucker that he likes sex with girls and intends to have some right now, just you watch – is funnier than Chris Evans on fire.

But at 76 minutes and 16 tracks the studio clearly never rang with the dreaded words “no, Michael”. There’s about five too many bollocks R Kellyish soul ballads featuring ‘drumming’ that resembles someone slapping a wet ferret with a stick and the record predictably slides into blubbing-billionaire sentimentality halfway through. Mikey starts banging creepily on about “saving the children” on ‘Cry’ and ‘The Lost Children’, but most galling of all is ‘Privacy’ in which Jackson demands that we “unblock my privacy” and “stop maliciously attacking my integrity”. Alright then, Whacksie, here’s the deal. You stop floating twenty foot statues of yourself down rivers, having your tackle discussed in court, organising ludicrous tribute concerts to yourself, having race-changes and spending billions of dollars violently ramming your image as a superhuman pop masterbeing down our throats, right, and we’ll stop taking any notice of you. Fucking freak.

Not that we’d have him any other way. ‘Invincible’ is a relevant and rejuvenated comeback album make overlong and embarassing by the unavoidable fact that Michael Jackson is a) exceedingly rich and b) a bit of a wanker. Nonetheless, you hope he keeps making records because you want to see him trying to moonwalk when he’s just a spinal column in a fedora. After all, when the gold-plated limousine starts skidding, you want to see it crash don’t you?

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