The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music
Feb 8 2012, 11:14 AM ET
More than two and a half years after his untimely death, Michael Jackson continues to entertain. Cirque du Soleil’s crowd-pleasing Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour is currently crisscrossing North America, while a recent Jackson-themed episode of Glee earned the show a 16 percent jump in ratings and its highest music sales of the season. Even Madonna’s halftime Super Bowl spectacle harkened back to a trend first initiated by Jackson.
But there is another crucial part of Jackson’s legacy that deserves attention: his pioneering role as an African-American artist working in an industry still plagued by segregation, stereotypical representations, or little representation at all.
Jackson never made any qualms about his aspirations. He wanted to be the best. When his highly successful Off the Wall album (in 1981, the best-selling album ever by a black artist) was slighted at the Grammy Awards, it only fueled Jackson’s resolve to create something better. His next album, Thriller, became the best-selling album by any artist of any race in the history of the music industry. It also won a record-setting seven Grammy awards, broke down color barriers on radio and TV, and redefined the possibilities of popular music on a global scale.
Yet among critics (predominantly white), skepticism and suspicion only grew. „He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables,” predicted James Baldwin in 1985, „for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”
Baldwin proved prophetic. In addition to a flood of ridicule regarding his intelligence, race, sexuality, appearance, and behavior, even his success and ambition were used by critics as evidence that he lacked artistic seriousness. Reviews frequently described his work as „calculating,” „slick,” and „shallow.” Establishment rock critics such as Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus notoriously dismissed Jackson as the first major popular music phenomenon whose impact was more commercial than cultural. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen, they claimed, challenged and re-shaped society. Jackson simply sold records and entertained.
It shouldn’t be much of a strain to hear the racial undertones in such an assertion. Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. It was the lie that constituted minstrelsy. It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
Given this history of white coronation, it is worth considering why the media took such issue with referring to Michael Jackson as the King of Pop. Certainly his achievements merited such a title. Yet up until his death in 2009, many journalists insisted on referring to him as the „self-proclaimed King of Pop.” Indeed, in 2003, Rolling Stone went so far as to ridiculously re-assign the title to Justin Timberlake. (To keep with the historical pattern, just last year the magazine devised a formula that coronated Eminem–over Run DMC, Public Enemy, Tupac, Jay-Z, or Kanye West–as the King of Hip Hop).
Jackson was well-aware of this history and consistently pushed against it. In 1979, Rolling Stone passed on a cover story about the singer, saying that it didn’t feel Jackson merited front cover status. „I’ve been told over and over again that black people on the covers of magazines don’t sell copies,” an exasperated Jackson told confidantes. „Just wait. Some day those magazines will come begging for an interview.”
Jackson, of course, was right (Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner actually sent a self-deprecatory letter acknowledging the oversight in 1984). And during the 1980s, at least, Jackson’s image seemed ubiquitous. Yet over the long haul, Jackson’s initial concern seems legitimate. As shown in the breakdown below, his appearances on the front cover of Rolling Stone, the United States’ most visible music publication, are far fewer than those of white artists:
- John Lennon: 30
- Mick Jagger: 29
- Paul McCartney: 26
- Bob Dylan: 22
- Bono: 22
- Bruce Springsteen: 22
- Madonna: 20
- Britney Spears: 13
- Michael Jackson: 8 (two came after he died; one featured Paul McCartney as well)
Is it really possible that Michael Jackson,arguably the most influential artist of the 20th century, merited less than half the coverage of Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna?
Of course, this disregard wasn’t limited to magazine covers. It extended into all realms of print media. In a 2002 speech in Harlem, Jackson not only protested his own slights, but also articulated how he fit into a lineage of African-American artists struggling for respect:
All the forms of popular music from jazz to hip-hop, to bebop, to soul [come from black innovation]. You talk about different dances from the catwalk, to the jitterbug, to the charleston, to break dancing – all these are forms of black dancing…What would [life] be without a song, without a dance, and joy and laughter, and music. These things are very important but if you go to the bookstore down the corner, you will not see one black person on the cover. You’ll see Elvis Presley, you’ll see the Rolling Stones…But we’re the real pioneers who started these [forms].”
While there was certainly some rhetorical flourish to his „not one black person on the cover” claim, his broader point of severely disproportionate representation in print was unquestionably accurate. Books on Elvis Presley alone outnumber titles on Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson combined.
When I began my book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, in 2005, there wasn’t one serious book focused on Jackson’s creative output. Indeed, at my local Barnes & Noble, I could find only two books about him, period. Both dealt with the scandals and controversies of his personal life.
It seemed the only way Michael Jackson could get covered was if he was presented as a freak, a curiosity, a spectacle. Even reviews of his albums, post-Thriller, focused on the sensational and were overwhelmingly condescending, when not outright hostile.
Of course, this poor coverage wasn’t only about race. Biases were often more subtle, veiled and coded. They were wrapped together with his overall otherness and conflated with the „Wacko Jacko” media construct. In addition, as Baldwin astutely noted, there were not entirely unrelated apprehensions about his wealth and fame, anxieties about his eccentricities and sexuality, confusion about his changing appearance, contempt for his childlike behavior, and fears about his power.
But the bottom line is this: Somehow, in the midst of the circus that surrounded him, Jackson managed to leave behind one of the most impressive catalogs in the history of music. Rarely has an artist been so adept at communicating the vitality and vulnerability of the human condition: the exhilaration, yearning, despair, and transcendence. Indeed, in Jackson’s case he literally embodied the music. It charged through him like an electric current. He mediated it through every means at his disposal–his voice, his body, his dances, films, words, technology and performances. His work was multi-media in a way never before experienced.
This is why the tendency of many critics to judge his work against circumscribed, often white, Euro-American musical standards is such a mistake. Jackson never fit neatly into categories and defied many of the expectations of rock/alternative enthusiasts. He was rooted deeply in the African-American tradition, which is crucial to understanding his work. But the hallmark of his art is fusion, the ability to stitch together disparate styles, genres and mediums to create something entirely new.
If critics simply hold Jackson’s lyrics on a sheet of paper next to those of Bob Dylan, then, they will likely find Jackson on the short end. It’s not that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t substantive (on the HIStory album alone, he tackles racism, materialism, fame, corruption, media distortion, ecological destruction, abuse, and alienation). But his greatness is in his ability to augment his words vocally, visually, physically, and sonically, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Listen, for example, to his non-verbal vocalizations–the cries, exclamations, grunts, gasps, and improvisatory vernacular–in which Jackson communicates beyond the strictures of language. Listen to his beat boxing and scatting; how he stretches or accents words; his James Brown-like staccato facility; the way his voice moves from gravelly to smooth to sublime; the passionate calls and responses; the way he soars just as naturally with gospel choirs and electric guitars.
Listen to his virtuosic rhythms and rich harmonies; the nuanced syncopation and signature bass lines; the layers of detail and archive of unusual sounds. Go beyond the usual classics, and play songs like „Stranger in Moscow,” „I Can’t Help It ,” „Liberian Girl ,” „Who Is It,” and „In the Back.” Note the range of subject matter, the spectrum of moods and textures, the astounding variety (and synthesis) of styles. On the Dangerous album alone, Jackson moves from New Jack Swing to classical, hip hop to gospel, R&B to industrial, funk to rock. It was music without borders or barriers, and it resonated across the globe.
However, it wasn’t until Jackson’s death in 2009 that he finally began to engender more respect and appreciation from the intelligentsia. It is one of humanity’s strange habits to only truly appreciate genius once it’s gone. Still, in spite of the renewed interest, the easy dismissals and disparity in serious print coverage remains.
As a competitor on par with the legendary Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson wouldn’t be satisfied. His goal was to prove that a black artist could do everything a white artist could (and more). He wanted to move beyond every boundary, earn every recognition, break every record, and achieve artistic immortality („That is why to escape death,” he said, „I bind my soul to my work”). The point of his ambition wasn’t money and fame; it was respect.
As he boldly proclaimed in his 1991 hit, „Black or White,” „I had to tell them I ain’t second to none.”
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Remembering Michael Jackson: The Story Behind His Magnum Opus
Joe Vogel – Author, music critic
Before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, before Avatar and Wall-E, before „going green” became a catchphrase, came Michael Jackson’s „Earth Song,” one of the most unusual, audacious protest songs in popular music history. A massive hit globally (reaching #1 in over fifteen countries), it wasn’t even released as a single in the United States.
Yet nearly sixteen years later, its admirers continue to grow. The song’s desperate plea on behalf of the planet and its inhabitants (particularly the most vulnerable) remains as relevant and important as ever.
„Earth Song” mattered deeply to Jackson, who rightfully considered it one of his greatest artistic achievements. He planned for it to be the climax of his ill-fated This Is It concert series in London. It was the last song he rehearsed before he died.
The following excerpt is from a 50-page piece entitled „Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus,” which details the song’s evolution from its inception in Vienna to Jackson’s final live performance in Munich:
„Michael Jackson was alone in his hotel room, pacing.
He was in the midst of the second leg of his Bad World Tour, an exhausting, 123-concert spectacular that stretched over nearly two years. The tour would become the largest-grossing and most-attended concert series in history.
Just days earlier, Jackson had performed in Rome at Flaminio Stadium to an ecstatic sold-out crowd of over 30,000. In his downtime, he visited the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican with Quincy Jones and legendary composer, Leonard Bernstein. Later, they drove to Florence where Jackson stood beneath Michelangelo’s masterful sculpture, David, gazing up in awe.
Now he was in Vienna, Austria, music capital of the Western world. It was here where Mozart’s brilliant Symphony No. 25 and haunting Requiem were composed; where Beethoven studied under Haydn and played his first symphony. And it was here, at the Vienna Marriott, on June 1, 1988, that Michael Jackson’s magnum opus, „Earth Song,” was born.
The six-and-a-half-minute piece that materialized over the next seven years was unlike anything heard before in popular music. Social anthems and protest songs had long been part of the heritage of rock. But not like this. „Earth Song” was something more epic, dramatic, and primal. Its roots were deeper; its vision more panoramic. It was a lamentation torn from the pages of Job and Jeremiah, an apocalyptic prophecy that recalled the works of Blake, Yeats, and Eliot.
It conveyed musically what Picasso’s masterful aesthetic protest, Guernica, conveyed in art. Inside its swirling scenes of destruction and suffering were voices – crying, pleading, shouting to be heard („What about us?”).
„Earth Song” would become the most successful environmental anthem ever recorded, topping the charts in over fifteen countries and selling over five million copies. Yet critics never quite knew what to make of it. Its unusual fusion of opera, rock, gospel, and blues sounded like nothing on the radio. It defied almost every expectation of a traditional anthem. In place of nationalism, it envisioned a world without division or hierarchy. In place of religious dogma or humanism, it yearned for a broader vision of ecological balance and harmony. In place of simplistic propaganda for a cause, it was a genuine artistic expression. In place of a jingly chorus that could be plastered on a T-shirt or billboard, it offered a wordless, universal cry.
Jackson remembered the exact moment the melody came.
It was his second night in Vienna. Outside his hotel, beyond Ring Strasse Boulevard and the sprawling Stadtpark, he could see the majestically lit museums, cathedrals, and opera houses. It was a world of culture and privilege far removed from his boyhood home in Gary, Indiana. Jackson was staying in spacious conjoining suites lined with large windows and a breathtaking view. Yet for all the surrounding opulence, mentally and emotionally he was somewhere else.
It wasn’t mere loneliness (though he definitely felt that). It was something deeper – an overwhelming despair about the condition of the world.
Perhaps the most common trait associated with celebrity is narcissism. In 1988, Jackson certainly would have had reason to be self-absorbed. He was the most famous person on the planet. Everywhere he traveled, he created mass hysteria. The day after his sold-out concert at Prater Stadium in Vienna, an AP article ran, „130 Fans Faint at Jackson Concert.” If the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, as John Lennon once claimed, Jackson had the entire Holy Trinity beat.
Michael Jackson performs in Vienna, Austria on June 2, 1988, one day after conceiving of „Earth Song.”
Photo Credit: Zoran Veselinovic
While Jackson enjoyed the attention in certain ways, he also felt a profound responsibility to use his celebrity for more than fame and fortune (in 2000, The Guinness Book of World Recordscited him as the most philanthropic pop star in history). „When you have seen the things I have seen and traveled all over the world, you would not be honest to yourself and the world to [look away],” Jackson explained.
At nearly every stop on his Bad World Tour, he would visit orphanages and hospitals. Just days earlier, while in Rome, he stopped by the Bambin Gesu Children’s Hospital, handing out gifts, taking pictures, and signing autographs. Before leaving, he pledged a donation of over $100,000 dollars.
While performing or helping children, he felt strong and happy, but when he returned to his hotel room, a combination of anxiety, sadness, and desperation sometimes seized him.
Jackson had always been sensitive to suffering and injustice. But in recent years, his feeling of moral responsibility grew. The stereotype of his naiveté ignored his natural curiosity and sponge-like mind. While he wasn’t a policy wonk (Jackson unquestionably preferred the realm of art to politics), he also wasn’t oblivious to the world around him. He read widely, watched films, talked to experts, and studied issues passionately. He was deeply invested in trying to understand and change the world.
In 1988, he certainly had reason for concern. The news read like chapters from ancient scripture: there were heat waves and droughts, massive wildfires and earthquakes, genocide and famine. Violence escalated in the Holy Land as forests were ravaged in the Amazon and garbage, oil and sewage swept up on shores. In place of Time‘s Person of the Year, 1988’s cover story was dedicated to the „endangered earth.” It suddenly occurred to many that we were literally destroying our own home.
Most people read or watch the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and felt physical pain. When people told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed completely in John Donne’s philosophy that „no man is an island.” For Jackson, the idea extended to all life. The whole planet was connected and intrinsically valuable.
„[For the average person],” he explained, „he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved… But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill… a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”
Once, during a dance rehearsal, he had to stop because an image of a dolphin trapped in a net made him so emotionally distraught. „From the way its body was tangled in the lines,” he explained, „you could read so much agony. Its eyes were vacant, yet there was still that smile, the ones dolphins never lose… So there I was, in the middle of rehearsal, and I thought, ‘They’re killing a dance.'”
When Jackson performed, he could feel these turbulent emotions surging through him. With his dancing and singing, he tried to transfuse the suffering, give it expression, meaning, and strength. It was liberating. For a brief moment, he could take his audience to an alternative world of harmony and ecstasy. But inevitably, he was thrown back into the „real world” of fear and alienation.
So much of this pain and despair circulated inside Jackson as he stood in his hotel room, brooding.
Then suddenly it „dropped in [his] lap”: Earth’s song. A song from her perspective, her voice. A lamentation and a plea.
The chorus came to him first – a wordless cry. He grabbed his tape player and pressed record. Aaaaaaaaah Oooooooooh.
The chords were simple, but powerful: A-flat minor to C-sharp triad; A-flat minor seventh to C-sharp triad; then modulating up, B-flat minor to E-flat triad. That’s it! Jackson thought. He then worked out the introduction and some of the verses. He imagined its scope in his head. This, he determined, would be the greatest song he’d ever composed…”
Copyright © 2011 Joseph Vogel
The Jackson Aftershock
June 21, 2011
As the second anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death approaches the sense of loss certainly does not seem to have lessened. There are stars, there are superstars and there are legends. Jackson was all of these and more. His influence to our lives will never be fully appreciated, and this definitely applies to our wardrobes. The retro, the glamour, the military and the gangster look are all styles Jackson rocked our world with. How can we ever call a man with white socks and black trousers uncool again?
For starters we have to mention his big and beautiful hair. The hip afro style that the young Michael had, captivated the world with his cute-as-a-button look. His style was funky fresh, with the perfect amount of innocence and fragility that never seemed to never leave the star throughout his life.
The Jackson teen years show a beautiful man, effortlessly rolling through career successes, and more importantly looking like he was enjoying it. The iconic videos that always accompanied his music included ‘Don’t stop ‘till you get enough’ which showed the moon-walking genius dancing against the innovative kaleidoscope backdrop. This stage in his look displayed Jackson in bow tie suits, colourful silky shirts and the birth of one of his many trademark features being the signiture white socks with black shoes.
As his style gains some fabulous momentum we see the emergence of the ‘Thriller’ Jackson. A peaking fame period which has Jackson still crowned with the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller, which sold over 110 million copies. The King of Pop lead the way in personal style with his alternative take to what could basically be described as a Halloween style costume. The Thriller look showed Michael go from dream date to sexy zombie with a pelvic thrust or two in between these looks. The aftershock of the look can be seen on the catwalks of today, especially in Christophe Decarinin’s Balmain silhouettes.
At this stage Time described Jackson’s influence as “A singer who cuts across all boundaries of taste and style and colour too”. The New York Times wrote that, “in the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else”.
Just when you thought he could not possibly match the success of ‘Thriller’, we saw the birth of another trade mark style feature Jackson is praised for. The single white rhinestone-encrusted glove accessory was viewed by 47 million people. It showed him tip toe and glide over lit floor tiles to ‘Billie Jean’ in 1983 with his one glove feature commanding the audience’s attention.
Although towards the end of his life his appearance became the subject of a ridiculous media obsession, which we should have pitied rather than mocked, he was still fashion and musical royalty. His clothes acted as the icing to a cake of unimaginable ability throughout his short life. When we remember Jackson, we do see a stylish man, and this is exactly how it should be.
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