With Michael Jackson, we’re not talking about sustained artistic excellence. Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) were great albums, sure. Call them classics, you’ll get no argument here. But beyond that, the legacy – at least the artistic one – is pretty thin. His four first solo albums, all with Motown Records in the early 70s, were passable – they were a good extension of what he did with the Jackson 5, which, in itself, was a very, very good R&B career. “I Want You Back”, even after decades of weddings and montages, stands tall as one of the truly unimpeachable Motown singles. Even the two monoliths of his career were far from perfect – Vincent Price and Paul McCartney guest spots, front-loaded, overstuffed – typical pop conceits, but significant remember nonetheless. And, let’s face it, even at his most lyrically interesting (“Billie Jean”, without a doubt), Jackson had very little to offer. These two albums, though, were not revelatory for their cohesiveness or flawlessness, but for their synthesis: in the case of Off the Wall, of disco with R&B and soul, and with Thriller, adding rock to the mix. To this day, few albums can touch Jackson’s success in this area.
In the 27 years after Thriller, Michael Jackson only released four more albums, two of which were pretty good (1985’s Bad and 1991’s Dangerous), and two of which were downright terrible (1995’s HIStory and 2001’s Invincible). The latter two provide strange insight into the strange artist’s phyche (perhaps moreso than at any other time in his career), but more on that later.
It’s tempting to give credit to Jackson’s golden age to producer Quincy Jones, who, indeed, was integral in the success of Off the Wall and Thriller, particularly since Jackson himself only wrote a handful of the songs on the two records, but it’s important to remember that Jackson was a prodigious talent, raised (abusively and irresponsibly, yes) to be a perfectionist, a consummate professional and entertainer, and surely he was at this point. His performances were magnificent, both recorded and live, vocal and physical. It’s easy to forget the thrill and remember the legend – his bombastic Superbowl performance has not aged well: all fireworks, trap doors, and prerecorded musicians, it simply paved the way for years of increasingly absurd and vapid follow-up acts.
But his performance at the Motown 25 Ceremony has only increased in power over the years, due largely because of its simplicity. Jackson, solo on stage, accompanied only by a microphone stand. No musicians, nothing to rely on except his voice and his dance moves, each increasingly elaborate, each eliciting larger screams from the audience, until, for the first time, the Moonwalk. Looking at it for the first time must be like watching Reservoir Dogs and waiting for The Ear scene, or Silence of the Lambs and the Chianti line. So legendary, yet, in reality, almost blink-and-you-missed-it quick. Still, though, it has the power to take your breath away. If King-of-Pop-ness could be distilled into a single second, surely that would be it.
Again, Jackson was a prodigious talent as a child, but of course rarely does that translate into artistic greatness. We should all be thankful, then, that at least Jackson aged well enough to deliver on his promise, however briefly. The real tragedy began, perhaps, in the wake of Thriller’s unprecedented success. A prodigy must always be chasing something (take Tiger Woods – who had a childhood which was in many ways similar to Jackson’s – and his lifelong quest to topple Jack Nicklaus’ career Major Championship total of 18), and, after that album, there was nothing to chase but his own success. With reported sales from 50 to over 100 million, there was absolutely no way he was going to get bigger, and it seems in his mind the only route to better was directly through bigger. Hence the fascinating and almost always misguided late career choices made by the King of Pop. Again, the Superbowl performance, the Macauly Culkin video, the Marlon Brando-cameo in 2001’s “You Rock My World” video, the massive statues which accompanied the release of HIStory in 1995… Particularly the aformentioned “You Rock My World”, a video, and song, so utterly lifeless and absolutely glossy that it may well not exist. Musically, at this point, Jackson had seemingly given up on writing hooks altogether, relying primarily on his iconic vocal inflections to signify that it was track by him. This isn’t necessarily a bad thought, but the accompanying music doesn’t have nearly the propulsion to sustain interest for its duration. The video, like the Superbown performance, was indeed influential, but, similarly, for all the wrong reasons – like Michael Bay compressed, it looks and feels fabulously expensive, has a string of stars and megastars (Michael Madsen, Chris Tucker, Marlon Brando, and Jackson himself), but is devoid of any motivation, emotion, or meaning.
Looking back, though, it seems the 1995 video for “Scream” is the real secret treasure of late-career Jackson. It is a musical and visual precursor to “You Rock My World”, so, on the one hand, not all that interesting. But on the other, what meaning remains is as strange as Jackson’s life at that point – he and his sister, Janet, are bored and angry on a glossy, futuristic spaceship, completely removed from Earthly contact. Janet is hypersexualized, and Michael is androgynous, asexual, almost neutered. They play games, break things, and, appropriately, scream. It’s probably a stretch to call it a cry for help, but it’s certainly a thinly-veiled metaphor for what Jackson’s real life had become – and, perhaps more tellingly, always had been.
But I keep rewatching that Motown 25 video. Wow. I want to be careful, though. I don’t want to mythologize it. The practice of mythologizing these performances and histories of our artists is dangerous – keep calling someone the King of Pop and eventually he’ll build a Kingdom. No, it’s a great performance, a powerful performance, but it was, in its own way, modest. And that iwhat I want to take away from revisiting Jackson’s legacy. Jackson was real talent, a rare talent, but never a King.