The year was 1990 and I was fourteen years old. One day my brother came home with Michael Jackson’s Bad album. There was an odd individual on the cover and in lack of alternatives I listened through the album, and was caught. I recorded it to a tape and thereafter it went lap after lap in my then very timely Sony Walkman.
What caught my interest was Michael’s distinctiveness in a world where most of the pop music was conventional and uniform. Where many rock singers had a conventional guitar sound without any discernible wish for innovation, Michael’s songs were excesses in search for perfection. His main objective seemed to be renewal and breaking the limits. To some, this notion felt clinical and bloodless, and they thought music should be more improvised and somewhat less perfect. For me it was the other way around. I found it intriguing that every sound, every note, had a purpose that jointly finished in a perfect musical symphony.
Furthermore, the broad range of his songs and mix of several styles of music also appealed. Where most musicians had one style and one sound, Michael’s uncompromising motto was that every track had to be a hit. The idea that one hit should “pull” the other songs was banned, and in contrast to most other pop stars no track was allowed to become a “padding”. Michael’s creations thus offered everything – white guitar rock, black soul, gospel, heartbreaking ballads and pop hits with striking choruses.
The genius of it all was that Michael always searched for renewal while his albums exclusively kept the width of the customer base. He never got too narrow like, for instance, Prince who deliberately disappeared from the top lists despite remarkable productivity. Michael succeeded with the art of being narrow and broad at the same time by achieving technical and musical conquests as he produced one monster hit after the other.
The fact that Michael was a peculiar figure surrounded by a whole lot of mystique actually made it more exciting. It was special in a time without Internet to get to know the man behind the distinctive music and the unique style that had become a trademark.
But it wasn’t all that easy to be a Michael fan at that time. The tabloids ceaselessly proclaimed his insanity with stories of oxygen tents, plastic surgery and whitened skin. The opinion was inevitably lured into this view and each time his name came up it was always about nose jobs and not about music. But the more I learned about the person behind the gossip, the less crazy he appeared. Eccentric and tinged by his mad childhood, sure, but also a sympathetic chap full of humanity. Simultaneously he was a professional on stage as well as in the studio, something that had been frayed into him by decades of drill and a special tendency to be the best, to perpetually overshadow himself.
When Michael started his solo career as a 21 year old, he was already a hugely experienced musician with ten years as a front figure in Jackson 5 behind him. His first solo album Off The Wall from 1979 was a typical soul/disco album produced by the master producer Quincy Jones. With no doubt, the whole album rocks, but it was with the sequel Thriller from 1982 that Michael made his big leap towards the broad pop scene, perhaps since his own creativity was allowed to take more space.
Thriller changed the music industry in several ways. It crossed cultural barriers and appealed to blacks as well as whites, young as well as old. It revolutionized the music video and forced an overwhelming renewal of MTV, a revolution that characterizes the music channel today. Thus Thriller sold more than any album before it and the record is still holding today.
Also Thriller was produced with Quincy Jones and the jazzy disco-pop from Off the Wall is evident also in the sequel, but perhaps with more stringency in the composition. Michael’s own creations Beat it and Billie Jean clearly stand out as the stars of the album and without them Thriller surely wouldn’t have become such a success.
The soulful monster hit Billie Jean with its distinctive base as well as the rock track Beat it with Eddie Van Halen’s famous solo, are entirely timeless offers to the history of popular music. The title track is as unique but chiefly stands out thanks to the fantastic 14 minute video. For Thriller Michael won eight Grammys.
After Thriller it must have been practically impossible to come back with something that wouldn’t look like a failure. But Michael struck back and he struck back hard. Bad hit the market like bomb in 1987, an astonishingly modern album that sounded a hundred years newer than Thriller – not five!
It must have chocked many with its ingeniously composed songs, one more different than the other, as well as a production that was ages ahead of its time. It actually still sounds modern today, and certainly essentially different from the rest of the offerings 25 years ago. Basically every track was a hit and the exceptional title track showed the way with its energetic pulse.
But I’d like to point out the three last tracks as the best ones. The impassioned rock track Dirty Diana that pours criticism upon the groupie culture, the high-pitched Smooth Criminal with its unique beat and choir chorus, and the flowing pop-hit Leave me Alone, where the chorus choirs lap over each other like clouds, are all masterpieces in composition as well as production.
The sequel Dangerous from 1991 couldn’t be expected to be as big a leap forward as Bad, but it came close enough! When the first track Jam jump-started the album it probably shocked many. The first half of Dangerous distinguishes itself with a naked soundtrack inspired by “the street”, different from any other pop music of the nineties. Hard and rhythmic, Michael blazons his criticism against society as well as his troubles with the opposite sex. The second half of the album is more typical “Jackson” with the catchy Black or White, obviously composed just to work as a hit, the soulful Who is it that reminds of a modern Billie Jean, and the masterly rock track Give in to me. Dangerous also contains new touches such as the gospel-inspired Will you be there and Keep the faith, as well as the sweet but powerful humanitarian ballad Heal the world.
It is this mix of classic Jackson sound and creativity that makes Dangerous such a great album. Had it been released yesterday it would have been welcomed as something entirely new. Surely noone would have noticed that it has actually passed 20 years!
Then came “the allegations”. Dark times, but many of us were convinced of his innocence. This was actually proved following his death when FBI’s documents leaked and when a certain plaintiff confessed to the obvious. As expected, the public went along with the witch-hunt, which isn’t surprising considering how easily a population can be manipulated. And Michael was certainly an easy victim.
In 1995 History was released – a fabulous comeback following the dark years. Sony Music surely screwed us by making it a double CD where the first part constituted of a tired collection of earlier hits. But as an album, History was the masterpiece that was expected.
The Swedish tabloid Expressen wrote “You’re the best Michael Jackson!” and such a grade for the intensely scrutinized Michael was astonishing. The more “serious” Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), on the other hand, showed its usual arrogance by demonstrating Michael’s insanity with regard to Michael’s crying about elephants being mistreated in the lyrics for Earth Song. Michael’s albums should definitely be criticized objectively, but more professionalism should certainly be expected from the country’s leading newspaper, and not this nonsense.
Despite its creative approach, History offers the classic ingredients – almost shamefully carved-out hits, imposing ballads, guitar riffs and a street-sound that had been developed from Dangerous, but with a rawer and yet more melodious stance.
The condemnation of society’s problems is customary, but here it’s more precise and unlike the intellectual difficulty in, for instance, Bob Dylan’s songs. What was new with History was instead the harsh condemnation of the media. Michael’s response to the allegations went like a red line through the album. The counter attacks against the paparazzi culture in true Eminem fashion were certainly justified, but perhaps a bit tedious. The raw 2 Bad and the impassioned Tabloid Junkie are musically perhaps the most accomplished examples of that attack.
But History is full of great pop, like the brilliant They don’t care about us, a hard but incredibly tuneful attack against states’ abuses of their own citizens. It might even be one of the best songs he’s ever written. The magnificent power ballad Earth Song is of the same magnitude, with Michael roaring out the abuse of our planet in a blistering chorus.
In 1997 Michael released the remix CD Blood on the dance floor with five new songs that didn’t make any substantial impression. But the tough, mechanical Morphine is definitely captivating, as is Ghosts with its elegant choir, a track that also appeared in the well-made musical with the same name.
Michael’s last album, Invincible from 2001, was a break with earlier albums since it didn’t trigger as much commotion as the earlier ones, since Sony didn’t fully support it, and since the expected cavalcade of hits and music videos were absent. Consequently, Invincible is a highly underrated album. It’s full of fantastic tracks even though some of them feel like “filling”, something utterly unknown on Michael’s previous albums.
The only real hit, You rock my world, is a nostalgic disco track in pleasant “Off the wall” style, while the rest of the songs are virtually unknown to everyone except hardcore Michael fans. This is a shame, since there are several goodies hidden in there. Electrical Heartbreaker, superb Whatever happens with Carlos Santana on guitar as well as the phenomenal ballads Speechless and The lost children, are the best of them. You can tell that many hours were spent in the studio and everything isn’t all that easy to take in. But that fact actually strengthens the album and gives it a timelessness that is pleasantly familiar with his earlier work.
Also, Invincible actually resembles Thriller with its soft, jazzy ballads. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Instead, Invincible appears to be a bit more intellectual and mature than the earlier albums, which further fortifies the timelessness and greatness of the album.
This is it could have been the ultimate comeback. The 2009 documentary shows that it would have been something awesome, like all Michael’s previous tours. To see him live on TV can be fantastic, but seeing him live for real was magical. It’s unbelievable how he moved on stage, like if he didn’t have bones in his body or as if he walked on air. We were all waiting for the new album that had been rumored for years and that was reportedly under sporadic development. It was said, for example, that Michael had rented an Irish castle where he recorded songs with Will.I.Am. Let’s hope we’ll someday have the opportunity to hear the results of that..
Now we know that there is a whole lot of new material out there, of which some was released on the latest album, Michael, in December 2010. Then we, once again, got to be amazed by the masterly choruses, creative beats and a fabulous repertoire of voice that stretches from the most delicate highs, to a coarse rock pitch as if originated from a Jack Daniels-drinking brute. Once again we got to wonder if the sounds originated from a synthesizer or from Michael’s own voice, since he, unbelievably, could produce half a symphony only by coordinating noises with his mouth.
His passing created a Michael fever I didn’t think possible. Now, every second kid walks around with a Michael t-shirt, and on the bus his incomparable creations trickle from the teenagers’ earphones. His sales have rocketed with earnings of 300 million dollars since his demise, and few talk about noses or oxygen chambers anymore. Instead it’s now about the music that always should have been the focus of Michael Jackson. It’s just a shame that he didn’t get this redress while he was alive.