At this writing, the first prosecution witnesses have begun testimony in the case of People v. Michael Joe Jackson. Upwards of 1,000 members of the press have converged on the Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Santa Maria to cover this latest Trial of the Century, many of them having made the breezy trip down the coast from Redwood City, where, this past December, Scott Peterson was convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci. In an act of infinite jurisprudential wisdom, Judge Rodney Melville banned all cameras from the Jackson trial, sparing the world a rerun of the O.J. Simpson case; but the E! Entertainment Television cable network swiftly stepped into the breach, announcing it would produce nightly re-enactments of the courtroom proceedings. The leading man in this teleplay is Edward Moss, a professional Michael Jackson impersonator, whose previous turns as the singer in Lake Tahoe casino tribute concerts, Scary Movie 3 and Mad TV presumably have equipped him to portray the 46-year-old singer as he faces multiple felony counts, and up to twenty years in prison, for allegedly molesting a 13-year-old cancer-stricken boy.
The charges are horrifying, and whether or not Jackson is found guilty, the sordid details that have already emerged are sure to devastate what little is left of his reputation. The most striking aspect of the trial's media coverage, however, is the apparently widespread amnesia about the man accused. While Jackson has been a one-man circus for decades now, it's not just his bizarre behavior--the tales of Bubbles the pet chimpanzee, of nights spent in hyperbaric chambers, of infant children dangled from hotel balconies--that has made him fascinating, but the fact that it co-exists with an equally freakish--a divinely freakish--talent. But Jackson has hit the Billboard singles chart only twice in the past decade, and the media seem to have forgotten what made him famous in the first place, rather brutally lumping him in with O.J., Robert Blake and other C-list celebrity defendants. Indeed, a whole record-buying generation has grown up with only the faintest knowledge of Jackson's musical genius, knowing him mainly as plastic-surgery victim and accused pedophile; in short, as the world's most famous reality-TV nutcase.
And yet, young pop fans do know Jackson's music, if only secondhand. Today's hit radio is more conspicuously Jacksonesque than at any time since the late 1980s. The speedy, dramatically syncopated vocal style that Jackson perfected in songs like "Smooth Criminal" (1987) and "Jam" (1991) has transformed the art of soul singing; from Beyoncé to R. Kelly, today's pre-eminent r&b vocalists are audibly Jackson's followers. Meanwhile, the world's two biggest male pop idols, Usher and Justin Timberlake, are even more flagrantly in Jackson's debt--imitating his falsetto, borrowing his dance moves, injecting their songs with the flashes of paranoia and desperation that gave Jackson's discothèque anthems psychological depth. No listener to Usher's "Yeah!" or Timberlake's "Rock Your Body"--whose title conflates two of Jackson's signature songs, "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" and "Rock With You"--can fail to detect his abiding influence.
But even the most accomplished mimicry pales beside the real thing, a fact reaffirmed by the arrival this winter of Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection, a sprawling new boxed set. The four-disc, fifty-seven-track package, complete with a bonus 1992 concert DVD, showed up in record stores shortly before Jackson's trial, and you can't help but connect the two events. Cynics may imagine that Jackson, who has released two major greatest hits discs in the past four years and is reportedly in grave financial straits, scrambled together the compilation (retail price: $59.98) to help defray legal expenses. (Certainly, little care went into the design of the thing, which resembles one of those cheap boxes of chocolates sold at duty-free shops.) I suspect a different motive: legacy management--an attempt, in this season of lurid revelations, to remind us that whatever else Jackson is, he is an artist. On that count, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection has arrived not a moment too soon.
It begins in the obvious place, with the Jackson 5 hits that introduced the world to a preposterously talented boy-singer. Legend has it that Jackson's vocal ability emerged when he was still in diapers; by age 6, he was performing onstage with his older brothers, singing and stepping through tightly choreographed dance routines at talent shows in and around their hometown of Gary, Indiana. Today the Jacksons are so deeply associated with the showbiz slickness (and kookiness) of Southern California, it's easy to forget their hardscrabble Rust Belt roots. Joe Jackson, the family's stern patriarch, was a crane operator for U.S. Steel and a onetime guitarist for the Falcons, a Gary-based r&b band that never made it; he channeled his unrealized musical aspirations into his sons' efforts. By 1966 weekend station-wagon journeys were taking the group as far afield as Chicago, and eventually all the way to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where they wowed the crowd at the famous Amateur Night talent contest. In 1968, after recording a couple of songs for a small Indiana-based independent label, the group won an audition with Motown president Berry Gordy Jr., who signed them on the spot, moving the entire Jackson clan from Gary to Los Angeles. Their debut album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (1969), was a classic product of the Motown music factory, but the grit of 11-year-old Michael's vocals is a reminder of the band's striving, chitlin-circuit roots--a sound of untrammeled ambition, even if it was more his father's than Michael's own.
The excitement of those early records can still rock you back with glee. "I Want You Back," the group's debut release, is one of the all-time great pop singles, a tribute in no small part to its songwriters, Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell and Deke Richards (a k a "the Corporation"), and to its ingenious, bubbling bass line, but above all to young Michael. There have been many kiddie pop stars, but none--not even Jackson's Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder--have sung with such soul, subtlety and exuberance. Jackson had an amazingly supple tenor; listen to him sliding through a string of lovely blue notes in the final chorus of the hit ballad "I'll Be There" (1970). But it's the gruffness of that young voice, with its shades of Wilson Pickett, Levi Stubbs and other burly soul men, that surprises today: It's strange to hear Jackson as a little boy pretending to be a grown man, instead of the other way around.