Thoughts on MJ
What struck me most about MJ passing was how quickly I knew about it. I was in a supermarket and suddenly, a breaking news thing about someone going to the hospital, I didn't catch who it was. As I walked down the street, I heard people whispering about how Michael Jackson was dead. I walked into a bodega and they were playing "Rock With You" on the radio. I asked the clerk - and it's gotta be big to make small talk with a clerk you don't know in NYC - whether it was true that he was dead, and the clerk said not yet, but basically. And so that's how I found out, literally from the street.
I'm not as sad about it as I was when, say, James Brown died. I think it's because Michael Jackson was so huge that I didn't feel like I had a personal connection to him. He was larger than life. To the extent that I'm sad, I'm sad because Michael himself had such an awful life. His childhood was unimaginably miserable, he was mercilessly beaten almost constantly and possibly sexually abused by his father. I never really held MJ's later weirdness against him because his childhood was so disturbed and strange. Before the Jackson 5 hit it big, they performed on the chitlin' circuit, and that meant a lot of shows where they were the warm-up and sometimes even the backing music for strippers. That's got to warp a kid. And I think his story is one of epic tragedy: a man who had all the wealth and fame in the world and would have given it all away (hell, tried to give it all away) to get his childhood back.
The thing about Michael Jackson's career is that the sheer success of his career was really unprecedented and unimaginable. My dad mentioned the fact that some people were huge for ten or twenty years, but Michael made hits for just about thirty years. Thriller is just an inconceivably amazing album, where virtually every cut is a hit known around the world; you might not think you know every song on Thriller, but trust me, you probably do. Bad, which is not as good an album imho, had FIVE number one hits, the only album to ever do that. And the thing about Michael's solo career is that unlike a lot of pop stars, he wrote most of his best material. Considering his track record, that's an insane feat.
Being a soul guy, I tend to prefer the older Jackson 5 stuff. Usually, when I talk about the Jackson 5, I talk about the incredible songwriting and arrangements. The bass line for "I Want You Back" is one of my favorite things ever, it's how I learned to love bass. But Michael was no slouch either. I love the young Michael's voice, it has this great, clear, bell-like timbre that I just always associate with happiness. He also had an amazing talent, rare among most kids, to really sing like a soul singer, really put his voice into overdrive. I love the J5 cover of "Who's Lovin' You", if you want a showcase of the young Michael's voice, you can't do much better than that. Tonight, I've been listening to "Never Can Say Goodbye", just listening to how Michael slowly lets his voice build until the climax of the ending, a bubbly, joyful explosion of pure soul. Other great things to check out are the amazing covers of J5 songs, like Isaac Hayes' always great cover of Never Can Say Goodbye and David Ruffin's cover of I Want You Back.
You know, writing this post and thinking about it, I may not feel a deep personal connection to Michael Jackson, but he's been the background music for some great times. I have this one picture sleeve 45 single of Smooth Criminal that I just freakin' love. It's scratched up beyond repair and almost always skips, but I have to resist the temptation to put it on during parties, because people always just go nuts when they hear it and it always builds the party up (until it skips, that is). All that shit is still as fresh as it ever was, and that's an amazing thing.
I have one last great MJ experience. This last semester, as some of you might know, I was in the People's Republic of China. One day, I visited a high school English class in Lijiang, high up in the mountains of northern Yunnan. I opened the floor up to questions and the very first question was actually a request: would you sing an American pop song? This is actually a more common request than you think. Chinese people love to sing their pop songs together (think Karaoke), and everyone tend to know every word of all the hot pop song, just because their pop music is not as fragmented as ours is (there isn't a big indie movement). But it's difficult for Americans, or at least for me. So I asked, uh, what would you like to hear? And they shouted out, your favorite and then, Michael Jackson. Oh, Michael Jackson, I said, that's easy. And I promptly belted out the chorus to Billie Jean, complete with woohs. Which the students, of course, also knew the words to.
For me, that's MJs legacy. He brings people together: now, and probably forever.