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.
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.
And then came Thriller (1982). So much of the discussion of this remarkable record has centered on its commercial milestones–the 40 million albums sold in its initial chart run, its seven Top 10 hits, its pioneering role in desegregating MTV and commercial radio–and on the mythic, Elvis- and Beatles-caliber stardom to which Jackson ascended in its aftermath. But take away all of Thriller‘s commercial and sociological import, banish for a moment the indelible video images and visions of Jackson’s moonwalk glide, and what you are left with is one of the most exciting and rigorous pop records ever made. Its songs are expertly calibrated little machines; just listen to how the components of “Billie Jean”–the thumping backbeat and bass line, the spooky background vocals, the sour little trumpet figure that answers Jackson’s vocal in the chorus, the string shivers, the stiff funk guitar strumming–come together to create an ideally eerie and austere sound. Scrutinize Thriller‘s liner notes and you’ll discover that “Billie Jean,” like the album’s other best songs–“Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “The Girl Is Mine”–was written and, for the most part, arranged by Jackson himself. The biggest pop star of the 1980s was also its leading auteur.
What is most striking about Thriller, nearly a quarter-century after its release, is the pall that hangs over it. Paternity suits, gang violence, horror movie dread, betrayals, paranoia, nervous breakdowns–these are the gentle themes treated on this record that everyone and his grandmother bought and danced to. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” sounds for all the world like a party tune, but listen closer: “It’s too high to get over/Too low to get under/You’re stuck in the middle/And the pain is thunder/You’re a vegetable/Still they hate you…./You’re just a buffet/They eat off of you.” It’s quite a shift from the beatific mood of Off the Wall, and the gloom never really lifted. Time and again, Jackson has returned to themes of violence, terror, repulsion, sexual anxiety, implacable sadness. Consider just a handful of song titles: “Bad,” “Dangerous,” “Dirty Diana,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Blood on the Dance Floor,” “Scream,” “In the Closet,” “Cry,” “The Lost Children,” “Threatened.” Few death-metal bands are so relentlessly grim.
The story of Jackson’s post-Thriller career is usually narrated in terms of decline and fall, and how could it be otherwise? There was no topping Thriller, either commercially or artistically, and Jackson needn’t have tried. But try he did, running through gargantuan budgets, swaddling his songs in layers of production sheen and generally pulling out all the stops in an attempt to outdo himself. It was apparently of little comfort to Jackson that Bad (1987), Thriller‘s follow-up, was a great (but not epochal) album, or that it sold tens of millions of copies, and it’s tempting to ascribe at least some of Jackson’s wacky behavior to his frustration at these failed efforts. Certainly, there was a touch of desperation in megalomaniacal gestures like branding himself the King of Pop and issuing an album cover depicting an enormous Michael Jackson statue towering against a sky of roiling clouds, to say nothing of his penchant for Michael-as-messiah anthems (“We Are the World,” “We Are Here to Change the World,” “Heal the World,” etc.). You can’t help but wonder what Jackson might have become had he, like his onetime rival Prince, been content to burrow into his own artistic vision, with little concern for whether records wound up on the hit parade.
But even Jackson’s misfires and overreaches are compelling. The Ultimate Collection is a well-selected anthology of past triumphs, but for those of us who have dismissed the singer’s more recent releases after just a few listens, the boxed set holds surprises. The fourth disc is drawn almost entirely from Blood on the Dance Floor (1997) and Invincible (2001), Jackson’s two biggest flops, and the music is terrific. It turns out that Jackson has dealt with hip-hop rather better than most singers of his generation. Beat- and sample-driven songs like “Blood on the Dance Floor” (1997) and “Unbreakable” (2001) sound contemporary but not desperately trendy, and his brutishly staccato singing works well in these more densely rhythmic settings. And Jackson’s ballad singing has never sounded better. “Beautiful Girl,” a previously unreleased demo recorded just last year, finds Jackson gliding over the sparsest synth and drum-machine accompaniment, and across octaves with an eeriness and finesse that recall Little Jimmy Scott. If he cared to, Jackson could be a jazz singer.
Such songs send you back to old albums with fresh ears and whet your appetite for future Jackson releases that may never come. Meanwhile, the courtroom circus drearily unfolds, and everyone–the media, certainly, and the lawyers, but above all the defendant himself, preening ridiculously for his fans outside the courthouse, flanked by Fruit of Islam bodyguards, and posting bizarre videotaped statements on his website–is conspiring to turn a hideous tragedy into just another reality-TV farce. Jackson’s trial may drag on for months. His records will last longer.