Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

My MJ Episode

It’s interesting to note that people are still divided over Michael Jackson, even in his death. And the main reason for that divide is how bizarre and weird he lived his life outside of his music. But everyone agrees that MJ was a musical genius. So I’ll talk about that instead.

Two mornings ago I heard a radio DJ say how, during her time, it was Bad that was the biggest thing on the radio; she and her classmates all gushed about “Man In The Mirror” being the greatest song ever. I found myself disagreeing at first. But then I realized that maybe, at her young and impressionable age, that change-should-come-from-within song would resonate far more deeply with her than, oh, a classic like “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan or “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys (aside from the fact that she may never have heard those songs played at all!).

I was lucky to have been savvy of pop music by the time Off The Wall came out. MJ’s break-out solo album spewed several top 10 hits, including “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”, “Rock With You” and the title track. The album became a staple at parties and soirees. And it established MJ as a solo artist who could stand apart from The Jacksons.

But I think his ultimate triumph, the pinnacle of his prowess was with Thriller. The whole album was wall-to-wall with hit after hit. He was able to break boundaries, first with a duet with Paul McCartney in “The Girl Is Mine,” followed by brilliantly getting Eddie Van Halen to do a blistering guitar solo in “Beat It”, thus blurring the lines between rhythm-and-blues and rock, black and white. “Billie Jean” was a funky, irresistible dance track and a paean to paranoia. And by this time, MJ was also responsible for making music videos an integral part of the music industry. The “Thriller” music video was groundbreaking in its length, ambition and impact.

When Bad came out, I thought even then that he was trying to repeat his Thriller success even as he tried to change his image. “Dirty Diana” had that same Van Halen-like guitar solo, this time by Steve Stevens. “Smooth Criminal” was his “Thriller”-like full-length music video. “Just Good Friends” with Stevie Wonder echoed his duet with Sir Paul. And the earnestness in his songs, which paid off well with Off The Wall’s “She’s Out Of My Life” (it made the break-up sounded real), was now in full message-song mode with “Man In The Mirror”, a song whose earnestness I find, by the fourth minute, to be irritating. (And it doesn’t help that, years later, I find that song even more grating than when I first heard it. That’s why when the kids in Bed go wild over the dance mix version I inwardly roll my eyes.)

Starting from Bad, MJ’s singing ticks, tricks and mannerisms became even more obvious and studied. With each new album, with each new song, his clicks, “oooohs” and “whooooos” sounded more and more calculated. Worse, you can see in his videos that he’s also merely repeating his once legendary moves. Sure, they’re signature moves—but c’mon, can’t he just drop them for new ones? His reinvention was limited to his hair, his skin color and his reputation. His music and his dance moves remained in limbo, just like his state of childlikeness.

The few songs I liked from him post-Bad days were “Scream” (his duet with sister Janet in a bid to prove that they aren’t one and the same person), “You Are Not Alone” (his vocal ticks sounded restraint, probably due to the very gradual build-up of the song—whatever, it worked), “Stranger In Moscow” (which for me is in the “Human Nature” vein, but turned down several notches more mournful), and surprisingly “Blood On The Dance Floor” (again, nothing new but still quite an infectious number—and I was surprised that in the music video, the camera wasn’t always trained on him, something that seemed unthinkable years before).

So yes he was a musical genius, one not born but made through hard work plus the right timing. Years of toiling as part of the Jackson Five trained him and prepared him for his break-out role as the biggest solo act of the 80s. But with Thriller he peaked. And sadly, he and his music didn’t grow up.

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