The Jackson 5, of course, were a huge pop culture sensation, the first and definitive multimedia boy band. (We have Michael and his brothers to blame for New Kids on the Block and all the other tone-deaf, heavily moussed lads we've endured in the decades since.) The group's first four singles all went to No. 1, a Billboard milestone; stories of their high jinks filled the pages of Tiger Beat and other fanzines; and their media dominion soon extended to encompass lunchboxes, dolls and cartoon shows, a not insignificant accomplishment for a bunch of black teenagers in 1971. But for the youngest Jackson, success was a mixed blessing. Jackson lore is rife with stories of Michael sitting bewildered and alone in the midst of debauched hotel parties while his brothers romped with groupies. More than one armchair psychoanalyst has traced Jackson's weirdness and sexual confusion to his unusual formative years--notably, the singer himself, in his 1995 ballad "Childhood," one of the creepier pieces of schmaltz in the Jackson canon:
Have you seen my childhood?
I'm searching for the world that I come from....
No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities
'Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me....
It's been my fate to compensate
For the childhood I've never known....
Before you judge me, try hard to love me
The painful youth I've had
Have you seen my childhood?
Listening to "Childhood," which Jackson sings beautifully over grandiose strings, you might forget the grace with which he made the transition from childhood to young adulthood nearly three decades ago. There is a famous late-1970s photograph of Jackson breezing into Studio 54. Jackson would have been in his late teens or just 20, and he was the very picture of a disco-era prince: movie-star handsome, broad-shouldered, brown skin aglow, wearing a wide-collared shirt open at the chest and what I can only imagine was a Halston suit. It's a glimpse of what might have been; the young man in the photo seems well on his way to a life of wealth and indulgence and swanning around the VIP rooms of fabulous clubs--the normal unreality of pop stardom.
Indeed, the Jackson who emerged as a solo artist in the late 1970s was preternaturally sleek, charismatic and confident, a perfect superstar for the post-soul era. He was the first performer to assimilate disco, which had dominated the charts for a couple of years, into a wholly personal style, combining its sumptuous grooves with the songcraft and vocal expressiveness of classic soul. You can hear that style budding in "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," the huge 1979 dance hit recorded with his brothers, and then bursting into flower on his solo breakthrough, Off the Wall (1979). The album was Jackson's first with producer Quincy Jones, and to many purists it's his best, an irresistible mix of suave soul, soft rock, pop and funk.
But it's Jackson's singing that propels Off the Wall. Here was the sound that would conquer the pop charts across the world: the limpid falsetto voice, strangely higher at age 21 than it was at 13, which could dip into a buttery midrange or explode into squeals, hiccups, grunts, "hee-hees" and other James Brown-on-helium exhortations. The album was a smash, the first by a solo artist to contain four Top 10 hits, including the definitive Jackson weeper, "She's Out of My Life," during which the singer dissolves in sobs--just a hint of the self-pity that would later permeate his songs. Overall, though, the mood of Off the Wall is joyous, as bright as the spangled socks that peek out from beneath Jackson's trouser cuffs on the gatefold cover. "So tonight gotta leave that nine to five up on the shelf/And just enjoy yourself," Jackson sings. He would never sound quite so untroubled again, and listening to the album is a bit like revisiting the early Beatles records, a delightful return to a seemingly simpler time and place.