Tuesday, June 30, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson 1958 - 2009

The King of Pop is dead. Of course, you could argue that he sorta died sometime in the 80s, and was replaced by a bizarre freakshow version of the entertainer we all knew and loved. While the Michael Jackson of the last 20 years was a walking cautionary example, the MJ of the late 70s was the quintessential black soul-pop star, a brilliant singer and dancer. Looking back on what happened since then, it's a sad descent, both as an artist and as a human being.

While "Thriller" (1982) is the biggest selling album of all time and is quite a remarkable collection of pop at singles, the seeds of his decline were already in evidence; it was the 80s after all, and most black performers from the 70s got noticeably crapper in the 80s. His music became progressively more shrill and synthesised, and his extraordinary singing talent seemed to regress to mostly shrieks. While he was a hero to African-Americans, not least for being one of the few black performers to break the unofficial colour bar on MTV, ironically he was shrinking from his blackness at the same time. Gradually his life became more and more of a circus, and he was known more as the punchline of jokes rather than for any actual good music.

I'd prefer to remember Michael the way we wish he'd stayed - identifiably black and human, good-looking and still relatively normal. The below videos are an example of what was and could have been.

The child performer of seemingly limitless talent, appearing on Soul Train:

"Butterflies" was one of the few times in recent history that Jackson seemed to remember that he was originally a soul singer, rather than simply a pop phenomenon. Produced by the A Touch of Jazz crew and written by Floetry, it's a shame he didn't make more of it.

"Can't help it" was one of the standouts on the 1979 classic "Off the Wall" album,but it recently got a makeover by Norwegian disco maestro Tango Terje. The result is wonderful and a cult classic. Terje doesn't compromise the original's lush instrumentation and soulfulness, simply speeding up the tempo and adding some tasteful house beats and percussion. It's the sort of direction it would have been nice for Jackson himself to have headed in.