Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Off the Wall, Bad, and Dangerous, Clearly Not Invincible, but Occasionally a Thriller

Many news stories today suggest that Michael Jackson's career has been irreparably tainted by his child molestation trial, even though he was acquitted. Gee, you think? Fact is, Jackson's reign as the King of Pop is not just over, it's ancient history. He hasn't occupied anything like a high rung of the music world since the early 1990s.

It's surprising to note just how small Jackson's discography really is. If you ignore his four Motown solo albums from the 1970s, all relatively minor, and once you remove the compilations, remix albums, and various other cash-in attempts from the list, you're left with five albums in 22 years to represent his reign: Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), Bad (1987), Dangerous (1992), and Invincible (2001)--and you can likely discount Invincible, which could barely be heard above the building accusations of scandal and sank almost without a trace. Off the Wall was massively successful and groundbreaking, although I was able to ignore it at the time since I was doing album rock radio in college and spinning country on the weekends. By the time Thriller arrived, however, no sentient being could ignore it. Seven of its nine tracks were released as singles--in an era when a maximum of three single releases from a single album was more common--and they all made the Top Ten. Plus, Jackson kicked down the doors at MTV after the channel was resistant, and everybody remembers him moonwalking his way through the Motown 25 TV special. At that point, beings on other planets had heard of him.

Thriller's longevity (and the Jackson family concert tour it spawned) made a new album unnecessary for a while--so Michael took five years before he got around to it. Not that the delay between albums harmed him at all. The best indication of Jackson's massive popularity and cultural reach may have come in 1987 when the radio station I worked for added the first single from Bad, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." We were an elevator-music station.

By 1992, the Jackson phenomenon was starting to hollow out--the video for "Black or White," the first single from Dangerous, debuted on network TV, but the buzz the morning after was about the weird window-smashing, crotch-grabbing coda that was later edited out of the video entirely. (Lost in the controversy was the fact that "Black or White" was Jackson's most convincing rock song next to "Beat It.") Later singles from Dangerous, like "Heal the World" and "Will You Be There" were treacly sludge, and when Jackson crowned himself "King of Pop" around this time, the gesture seemed several years late, and an attempt to corral a horse that had already escaped the barn.

I can't tell you where Jackson ranks among the great performers of the age, or even if he belongs among them. Maybe it's because dance music doesn't seem as inherently serious as what the Beatles or Dylan or the Stones or REM or U2 do, but that can't be it entirely. Seriousness, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, isn't necessarily the only thing that counts when assessing credentials for immortality. Maybe it's because the Jackson Five's 1970 hit "I'll Be There" overshadows, at least for me, everything almost Michael did on his own, except "Billie Jean."

I wonder about "I'll Be There" sometimes. Does Jackson ever hear it, or think about it? And if so, how does it make him feel?


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