(Editor’s Intro: I wanted to pull out two posts from a year ago in honor of the first anniversary of MJ’s death. Can’t believe it’s been a year already. –O.W.)
(Originally written 6/26/09)
From the time he was 10 Michael Jackson grew up in front of the world – first wonderfully, then weirdly, then woefully. His death at just 50 is hard to quite process. A tragedy? Yes but I’m not sure if it’s any more tragic than the grotesque implosion of the rest of his life. I thought Hua had it exactly right: “Different versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago.”
A similar point was echoed by my friend Eliani while we were noshing at 2am at the Taco Zone truck, following a two hour MJ5 tribute set with Wil at the Shortstop. In between bites of carnitas, she proffered (I’m paraphrasing), “depending on when you grew up, each of us has a different Michael Jackson we knew and lost.”
I was lucky to have grown up with one of the incadescent MJ incarnations. I probably heard a J5 song at some point in my ’70s childhood but I don’t actually remember hearing a Michael Jackson song until “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” and the Off the Wall album came out. I was probably 7 or 8 then, just discovering the radio and top 40 and so my exposure to the expansive world of pop was indelibly marked by his presence.
It’s been an interesting process, trying to decipher what exactly made him so great. After all, and this is not meant to be remotely disrespectful, but while Jackson clearly helped sell a gazillion records, if you actually parse down his musical impact, he’s overshadowed by any number of peers. Some have had a greater, overall presence on pop music (James Brown + The Beatles), others have stayed in the mix as a creative force with more consistency (Dylan), and certainly, there’s been other artists just as commercially successful but more adventurous (hello Prince!).
That said, consider how a pre-pubescent child managed to score success on par with Marvin Gaye at the turn of the ’60s/’70s, then gradually pull away from the machine (or if you prefer, The Corporation) that fueled his success, only to emerge into a solo career that didn’t simply improve on his achievements but elevated him into the greatest pop artist of his generation.
Child singers are simply not meant to survive into adulthood. I can only think of two similar examples: Stevie Wonder comes to mind but Stevie never had the kind of instant success that the Jackson 5 provided Michael (that said, Stevie’s creativity is unparalleled, including by Michael). The other would be, interestingly, Celine Dion. Do with that what you will. However, those exceptions aside, pop music history is littered with the ghosts of child singers whose careers disappeared with the onset of puberty.
Whatever the truths of Jackson’s childhood (idyllic vs. tortured), what you can say is that he had to shoulder the same kind of creative challenges under the Motown system that his colleagues – thrice his age – were also dealing with. Not only that but he was expected, long before he was old enough to even drive, to emote the kind of passion, longing and melancholy that usually only repeated adult heartache gives you access to. Emotionally, he had to grow up in his singing much faster than what his physical age would otherwise belie. It’s common to talk about J5 songs like “ABC” being “filled with innocence” but if you listen over the group and Jackson’s solo catalog from the 1970s, there’s a lot less sunshine than you’d imagine. That he managed to drop iconic, hit records throughout most of that process (with the exception of a fallow period in the mid-’70s) is a testament to his talent/genius/luck/whatever you want to call it.
And therein, to me, lies both the triumph of his achievements but also the makings of his (and in a sense, our) tragedies. As Jeff Chang argued, “for that voice, he lost his childhood. Or more precisely, he gave it to us,” which isn’t quite like saying he died for our sins but I think part of what Jeff is suggesting is that if Michael wasn’t blessed with such a magical presence, we may not have liked him so well. And if we didn’t like him so well, maybe his life would have turned out more normal, less (self)-destructive. These “what if” scenarios are impossible to answer, of course. All we know is the Jackson we were given and if his life is to be read as a kind of sacrifice to our pleasure, at least we can honor that by celebrating his libations.
Consider too: Jackson was a once-in-a-lifetime musical (and of course, cultural) figure, the likes of which will almost certainly never be duplicated again (sorry Jonas Brothers). The pop landscape has shifted, irrevocably I feel, over the last 10-20 years and the ability for a singular figure to become a multi-generational crossover star seems practically impossible. Of course, it probably seemed impossible back in the ’70s…until Michael did it.
I should add too: for all his foibles, scandals and just general surreality, I absolutely guarantee you that the music Jackson and his family left behind will only evolve to seem more sublime, enchanting and moving .
Ok – so enough about legacy; next time I pop in, it’ll be to talk about Jackson’s music. In the meantime, here is arguably the most memorable performance MJ gave. It is still incredible some 26 years later.
If you feel like it, here’s me and Jay Smooth musing on MJ for The Sound of Young America, recorded earlier today.
The Sound of Young America
 This presumes there isn’t some smoking gun evidence which comes out posthumously that MJ was indeed, guilty of child molestation. But even his music could likely survive that.
Last Thursday, Wil and I put together a night o’ Michael, capped with a two hour set of straight M-J-5 songs that pretty much had the dance floor filled from start to finish.
Anyone who has every DJed any party, anywhere knows that when everything else fails, you can always put on some MJ and it’s like Insta-Party. As a fellow DJ wrote, “MJ has always been the most “guaranteed go-to” artist for DJs in the history of DJs.” True that.
The thing is…it’s so easy to get the party started with MJ, it’s like an unfair advantage over the audience. It’s so easy that I’ve usually avoided playing anything too obvious by MJ simply because…it’s too easy.
And I was thinking: who else comes close to having that kind of power? The only artist even in the conversation is Prince but even then, we’re talking about Purple Rain-era Prince mostly whereas with MJ, you can drop everything from “I Want You Back” (1970) to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (1979) to “Billie Jean” (1982) to “Smooth Criminal” (1987) and it’s on like Donkey Kong.
But this post actually isn’t about those songs. You don’t really need me waxing poetic about “Billie Jean” or “I Want You Back.” I’m here to dig beneath the #1 hits and offer up a playlist of some of my favorite M-J-5 related songs/covers/remixes that bring out the full spectrum of the artist and group’s styles.
Jackson 5: Big Boy
From 7″ (Steeltown, 1968).
I learned about “Big Boy” gigging with some excellent soul selectors up in San Francisco and it’s been a favorite “end of the night” ballad to throw on. What’s remarkable here is that Jackson is…what? 9? 10? And yet listen to him try to sell his “age ain’t nothin’ but a #” smooth mack game. This song was evidently re-recoreded (or released with a separate mix) but I prefer the original 7″ version. It’s less cluttered which allows the vocal’s poignancy to shine forth.
Jackson 5: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
From Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (Motown, 1969)
An odd choice I know, least of which is the disturbing relationship to Song of the South and Disney’s minstrel embrace. But forgive me for just finding this cover to be strange and kind of compelling. I mean, it’s the Jackson 5 covering “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”. ‘Nuff said.
Jackson 5: 2-4-6-8
From ABC (Motown, 1970)
“ABC” is a cold classic, no doubt, but personally, I find myself bumpin’ its numerical kin more often. I suppose Motown thought it’d be too shameless to drop this as a single too but for a formulaic song, it’s irrepressibly catchy, no?
Jackson 5: Darling Dear
From Third Album (Motown, 1971)
Pet peeve: no one in the Jackson camp or Motown brain trust could come up with a better title than Third Album? That aside, “Darling Dear” is one of those hidden gems from the MJ5 catalog that I only discovered recently (more on that later) and *whistle* what a beauty of a song.
Nancy Holloway: Un Amour Aussi Grand
From 7″ (Barclay, 1971)
Ah yes, the lovely Nancy Holloway, singing the big hit off of the Maybe Tomorrow album in français. Frankly, this song would probably work in Klingon but if you had to pick a non-English language for this, French is not a bad way to go.
Jackson 5: I Wanna Be Where You Are
From In Japan! (Motown Japan, 1973)
Jackson’s first solo album, released when he was all of 13, made a clear statement that he was as competent and capable rolling on his own as he was surrounded by his brothers. “I Wanna Be Where You Are” is one of the three big singles off this album (though I think far less people remember “Rockin’ Robin” as compared to the title song) and has one of the most memorable opening lines in any pop song I can think of: “can it be I stayed away so long?” (Note: I love how it pops up on this song).
Hua first put me up on this live version of the song, recorded during the Jacksons tour for Japan in 1973. I actually like 1) how they take out the guitars, which I always found a bit overpowering in the mix and 2) the audience handclaps in the background. (Zulema also does a great version of this song, which I included for an NPR.com piece that should run early next week.
Michael Jackson: We’ve Got a Good Thing Going
From Ben (Motown, 1972)
Let’s first say – best album featuring a rat on its cover, ever. Second, of all the songs I’ve been revisiting, this is the one that has me in straight rewind mode. Love the production – The Corporation execute beautifully on the rhythms and textures of this ballad and the songwriting is memorable without being overly simplistic. This song doesn’t just “work” – it (and god help me, I really couldn’t find a better phrase to use here even if it sounds like total boilerplate)…sings.
Love. It. Love. It. Love. It.
(By the way, someone pointed out that Sugar Minnot recorded a cover of this – crazy.
DJ Bobo James: Good Thing Goin’
Michael Jackson: We’re Almost There (DJ Spinna Remix)
Both from Soul Source: Jackson 5 Remixes, Vol. 2 (Universal, 2001)
I should give credit – the main reason I know anything about either “We’ve Got a Good Thing” or “Darling Dear” is because I first heard the two songs combined in an awesome remix by DJ Bobo James. The first part of the song is playing off of “We’ve Got a Good Thing,” especially the piano melody and then, midway through, he shifts to work off the strings of “Darling Dear.” Put together, it’s just a beaut of a song and it fueled my desire to hear the originals.
On the same album, DJ Spinna drops another incredible remix, this one for “We’re Almost There,” from Jackson’s slept-on Forever, Michael LP (his last for Motown). Wil ended our MJ tribute with this song and it was perfect. Dare I say but I think Spinna actually improves on the original here by stripping things down and building around the intense mix of hope and melancholy sublimated into Michael’s vocals.
Michael Jackson: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (demo)
From Off the Wall (Remastered Edition) (Epic 1979/Sony 2001)
Not all demo versions are necessarily worth a listen but in this case, the demo reveals so much about the musical process that resulted in one of the best songs off of Off the Wall. I really like how it sounds here, all stripped down and unglossy.
For my NPR.com piece, I included the fantastic Derrick Laro and Trinity version of this song.
SWV: Right Here (Human Nature Duet, Demolition Mix)
From Remixes EP (RCA, 1994)
Ok – we’ve arrived at Thriller (and I skipped over quite a few M-J-5 albums prior to this, I’ll try to revisit those in a later post). Remember when SWV was kind of running sh– back around ’93/’94? Their remix EP finally cobbled together some of their stronger material, including that Wu-Tang remix of “Anything” that caught serious play for a hot minute. But you really couldn’t front on the smoothness that was the “Human Nature Duet” mix which blended together “Right Here” and “Human Nature.” To this day, I’ve wondered if they actually cleared the MJ and if so, what it cost them to do so.
Michael Jackson: Pretty Young Thing (Demo)
From The Ultimate Collection (Sony, 2004)
In no way does this trump the awesomeness of the album version but it’s interesting just to hear this super-quiet storm approach to the song in its infancy stages.
Floetry: Butterflies (demo)
From Floetic (Geffen, 2002)
I didn’t realize until now that “Butterflies,” my favorite MJ song post-Thriller (and featured on his 2001 Invincible album) was actually, originally, a Floetry song, recorded by them in 1997 which MJ then basically re-recorded his vocals over. The tracks are almost identical except that the original Floetry version has that doubling of the snare every two bars or so which sounds somewhere between “cool” and “clunky.” Otherwise, if you put this and MJ’s up, side to side, you can hear how close they are. And I have to say…I think Jackson has the better vocal performance here (but hey, it’s Michael).
For a change, I did a basic mix of everything above. You can stream below or DL here.
The Soul Sides M-J-5 Mix