From The Times
June 27, 2009

Child star Michael Jackson became a man with a rebel ‚yeow‘

By Pete Paphides
The footage is grainy and has been replayed a million times, used on every programme ever made about Michael Jackson’s life. By rights, it should have lost its power a long time ago but if anything, that power has increased over the years. Taken from Goin’ Back to Indiana, a television special broadcast in 1971, it is of the Jackson 5 singing I Want You Back. For a second, resist your natural urge to look at Jackson, who’s singing lead vocal, and look at his brothers, executing dance moves with good-natured precision. Remove Jackson from the equation and what you have is a pop song — a great pop song but no more remarkable than the hundreds of other soul perennials from the era. But, of course, you can’t avert your gaze from the 13-year-old in the middle. When you hear him singing “Oh baby, give me one more chance”, you forget the fact that you’re listening to a child.

For the first half of his life at least, Jackson was the music — accessing through melodies emotions he couldn’t possibly have experienced first hand. At times, his ability to do so could leave you laughing at the incongruous intensity of your own reaction. Rockin’ Robin and ABC were classic bubblegum from the Motown production line but listen to Jackson’s version of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. It seems to come from another place entirely, placed equidistantly between excitement and a fear of what Santa Claus might do when he finally gets there. We can only speculate about the things in Jackson’s home life that made him funnel such complex emotions into music that often fell short of them. He spoke of gazing longingly out of the studio window as other children played (he was bound by his father, Joe, to keep to the demands of a hectic release schedule). That he was unhappy with this arrangement is reflected in his first professional move as an adult — hiring Quincy Jones as producer. Jackson saw in Jones, with whom he worked on the soundtrack to the 1978 film The Wiz, an escape from the iron lung his father and Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, had created for him.

The resulting solo album, Off the Wall, was the first time Jackson was able to show the world the full extent of his talents. Without the benefit of foresight, the iconic gatefold sleeve image of Jackson in his suit and white socks (the white socks came at his insistence) suggested that whatever travails he had experienced in his childhood, he had fossilised them into a single source of artistic fuel.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough and Rock With You were dramatic updates of the Jackson America thought it knew. Consciously or otherwise, these were songs about escape — using the dancefloor as their focus — and were delivered with a sense of relief that, 30 years on, sounds peculiarly moving (Justin Timberlake seized upon the same emotions when he used Off the Wall as the sonic template for his own solo career). The album was the first time Jackson sounded carefree, like a man who had control of both the horizontal and the vertical.

Related Links
  • Memories of Michael
  • The way he made me feel
  • The dysfunctional Jackson family

More than 20 million copies of Off the Wall were sold but this is only the half of it. In the early Eighties, you didn’t just listen to Michael Jackson, you wanted to be like him. In the three years between Off the Wall’s release in 1979 and his next album, Jackson’s stock rose but he and Jones continued to take risks. The first preview of material from Thriller – the premiere of the video to Billie Jean – increased expectation. His dancing and his singing (complete with the gulps and grunts that would in time reduce him to self-parody) merged to create an arresting synergy. Jones and Jackson had argued about the intro to the song, with the producer insisting that a build-up prior to the vocals would stop radio stations from playing the song and the singer adamant that the intro helped to make the song. As Jones conceded many years later, Jackson was absolutely right. The lyrics were a further stroke of genius. A hint of paternity dispute (the song is about an obsessive fan) laid to waste any last vestige of Jackson the child star.

Thriller was aspirational. If Jackson hadn’t seduced a girl in his life, it didn’t detract from the sentiment of, say, The Lady in my Life or Human Nature because neither in all probability had most of the people who listened to the tracks while getting ready to go out on a Friday night. You suspect that if a 21st century teenager listened to Thriller’s soppier moments, they would probably be tickled by the quaintness of the sentiments. Ditto Paul McCartney and Jackson as two stags locking antlers on The Girl is Mine. All these years later, the superstar trade-off — Macca’s singing “She told me that I’m her forever lover, you know” — has a whiff of camp about it.

An otherness infuses the songs on Thriller: the faux-voodoo chant seemingly designed to scare away the bullies in Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’; the brittle, brutal production on Beat It that was inspired by The Knack’s My Sharona. Everything that Jackson did seemed unpredictable and, as a result, exciting. The price of the 14-minute video to the album’s title track was a whopping £20 but that still didn’t stop it becoming one of the best-selling music videos of all time — and pushing album sales to a world record of about 53 million (actual figures are to this day disputed).

With the benefit of hindsight, its easy to see how the arc of Jackson’s life — from child to adult to child again — reached its outermost point with Thriller. The boy who would wake up to see his father standing at the foot of his bed with a knife — because Joe Jackson wanted to “toughen” his son up — was beginning to rear his head, proclaiming his toughness at every point. The title track of 1987’s Bad stretched credulity. Even before years of reconstructive surgery conferred several layers of irony upon it, Man in the Mirror was a self-help dirge that played to none of Jackson’s strengths. But there are other songs on the album that represent a final rallying of Jackson’s songwriting abilities. Smooth Criminal is a taut, uptight panic attack set to sublime, industrial-grade funk.

By the time Jackson began to refer to himself as the King of Pop, there was little evidence to back up the claims. As a child, he had been able to take relatively lacklustre material and use his voice to inject it with heart-rending urgency. On his final three albums, Dangerous, HIStory and Invincible, his hics and grunts were spoiling perfectly good songs. It’s only in these years that we have begun to piece together the dichotomy that informs everything we knew about Michael Jackson. As a child, his anguished, world-weary tones were anything but childlike. In the final years of his creative life, his obsession with the innocence of childhood conferred an eeriness upon his music. For a while, though, as the Seventies turned into the Eighties, and he believed himself strong enough to overcome his demons, Jackson was the quintessential pop star.


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