...and why we won't

Just twenty-four hours after we put the last issue of Clash to print, the news broke that Michael Jackson had died.

Those who were watching the news feeds as it happened were shocked, stunned and sad, going through the emotions as the story unfolded, while those schlepping into the fields of Glastonbury put it down to another of those festival hoaxes, refusing to believe their colleagues’ texts and emails. The following day was a time for remembrance. Clearly this was a man who was chastised by the media for over two decades, but for anyone who grew up in that time there was always a fundamental love for the music he made, so over and above any jokes or frivolities made in the wake of his passing, the morning was a celebration of all his enduring hits.

By the following Monday, with the weight of the weekend’s headlines looming large over conversations, nostalgia had turned into a serious appraisal of the man, the myth and the legend, and as home truths began to emerge, the disturbing reality of the artist once dubbed the King Of Pop once again threatened to overshadow his musical achievements. Now, with his body laid to rest and the wheels in motion for a posthumous surge of interest in Jackson’s work (not to mention countless twists and turns in untying his business and personal affairs), it’s time to evaluate the reasons why we love to love and love to hate the singer who defined the Eighties.

His legend will continue... so too will his infamy.

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Michael Jackson – ‘Billie Jean'

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1. The Jackson 5

Berry Gordy’s Detroit-based Motown Records may have been the epicentre of American pop in the 1960s, but by the end of the decade, with the musical landscape changing and the departure of its chief songwriters, it was in desperate need of fresh blood. The Jackson 5 - Michael plus brothers Jermaine, Tito, Jackie and Marlon - were signed in 1968, released their album a year later, and by January 1970 had their first number one single, ‘I Want You Back’ - the first of four in a row. Their songs remain timeless, and embody the enduring appeal of an adored twelve-year-old Michael Jackson.

2. The Wiz

An irrevocable flop, Motown’s 1978 translation of The Wizard Of Oz is actually a bit of a guilty pleasure. Michael Jackson is the Scarecrow to Diana Ross’ Dorothy, the two embarking on a star-studded musical quest to find The Wiz (Richard Pryor), who’ll make their wishes come true. The movie signalled the demise of the ’70s Blaxploitation cult and it remains a celluloid oddity, but its soundtrack is well worth checking out, and is notable for introducing Michael Jackson to its producer, Quincy Jones.

3. ‘Off The Wall’

Marking the moment when Michael Jackson grew up, this, his fifth solo album, was his first with Quincy Jones working the controls, harnessing the pair’s desire to create a new direction for the singer. The end result was a slick, sophisticated album that curtailed the wild abandon of disco and heralded the modishness and extravagance of the Eighties.

4. ‘Thriller’

You know every single song on the album. How mad is that? How many albums are so universally recognised that even its weaker tracks would incur a stampede at a family wedding disco? Upon release it was selling a million copies a week - testament to its ultra-modern sound, innovation and ambition. Jackson wanted to be the biggest star in the world, and ‘Thriller’ - both the album and its title track’s incredible video - catapulted him to the status of global icon and the saviour of mainstream pop music.

5. The moonwalk

Premiered live on TV in 1983, Jackson’s signature dance move was destined to be attempted and copied in playgrounds the world over. Its graceful, futuristic slide exemplified Michael’s remarkable talent as a dancer and skill as showman.

6. Charity work

His spending was legendary, but the amount of money that Jackson donated to worthy causes was monumental, and displayed the altruism he encouraged throughout his life. Beneficiaries of Jacko’s millions include a burns centre, alcohol and drug treatments, the United Negro Charity Fund, HIV/AIDS charities and famine relief funds, for which Michael co-wrote ‘We Are The World’. His humanitarian efforts should be applauded.

7. Bubbles

Seriously, who wouldn’t buy a monkey if you were a millionaire? The fact that Jacko saved this chimp from a cancer research clinic, lived with him, dressed him in childrens clothes and treated him like his own child is frankly brilliant. Bubbles is now twenty-six, and in the care of an ape sanctuary in Florida.

8. Musical pioneer

Across his vast catalogue, Jackson demonstrated a versatility that saw him effortlessly traverse between rock ‘n’ roll, pop, soul, R‘n’B, funk, rap, metal, electro and techno. In a medium where artists are continually enforced an identity and compartmentalised by specific genres, for Michael Jackson, collaborating with Paul McCartney was as easy as working with Eddie Van Halen or Slash, and the music they produced was never anything less than perfect pop.

9. Black power

To many, Jackson’s apparent desire to be considered white was seen as an affront to his African American heritage, that he was denying his ancestry and insulting his race. However, as MTV emerged as a classic rock video channel, Jackson faced media prejudices against his colour. He eventually confronted the station and challenged their attitudes with his omnipotence. As ‘Billie Jean’ aired regularly across the channel, it paved the way for the station becoming a visual beacon for urban music and the growing popularity of R‘n’B and hip-hop.

10. ‘Billie Jean’

Jackson’s finest songwriting moment is this song about a crazed fan. That insistent drum intro gives way to that classic bassline, and already you want to dance. It’s a classic pop sound, but the darkness that permeates its lyrics and the starkness of its pulsing rhythms ensured it was as frightful as it was delightful. If only Jackson could always have been this good.


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Moonwalker Trailer

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1. Singles

While The Beatles insisted on not including singles on albums, thus producing a standalone run of classic 7”s that would promote the ensuing long-player, Jackson and his label spun this generosity on its head, and milked ‘Thriller’ for all that it was worth - seven out of the album’s nine tracks were released as singles - setting a precedent for lazy bands and swindled fans.

2. Moonwalker

While Jacko’s appearance in The Wiz was a bit of kitsch fun, his 1988 cinematic mess ‘Moonwalker’ was ninety-three minutes of nonsense fantasy tied together around loose story lines that essentially served as a (very expensive) vehicle for the music videos that were scattered randomly throughout it. The nadir of Joe Pesci.

3. Black or white

Jackson was apparently diagnosed with vitiligo in 1986, admitting it on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 1993, but was the disease really a cover-up for Jacko’s endless quest of vanity? Rumours of skin bleaching abounded, an addendum to the relentless plastic surgery he pursued to create a new identity, distancing himself from the young Michael so cruelly bullied by his father. The truth will never be known, but the mutilation of Jackson’s face and body damaged his reputation and character far more than it did his bone structure.

4. Child abuse

Michael was found not guilty to accusations of child abuse in 2005, but the court case irrevocably ruined his character forever. There’s no smoke without fire, people thought, and the stories of children sleeping over at the singer’s Neverland ranch continued to disturb. Perhaps, it is suggested, Jackson’s lack of a normal childhood and abuse from his father eventually regressed him into such a childlike state that his physical curiosities were that of a ten-year-old boy but suppressed in a forty-year-old man. Whatever the reason, it was hard to watch footage of Jackson and his young friends without thinking the worst.

5. Detachment from reality

Everyone loves an eccentric, but Jackson pushed oddball behaviour over the limit. It started with the curious reports of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, but his increasingly erratic nature would culminate with him dangling his son over a fourth storey balcony, attending court in his pyjamas, and of course his futile portrayal as a messianic healer.

6. Expensive videos

When John Landis and Jacko conspired to create the groundbreaking million-dollar fourteen-minute video for ‘Thriller’, they inadvertently set a standard for big budget videos that were (unlike ‘Thriller’) ultimately more style than substance. Mariah Carey, Backstreet Boys and Puff Daddy are all guilty of blowing huge amounts on lavish visuals, while Madonna spent six million dollars in a desperate attempt to make ‘Die Another Day’ something more than the worst Bond theme to date. For the record, Jacko’s video for his duet with sister Janet, ‘Scream’ is still the most expensive video, costing seven million dollars. That’s a shit song too.

7. Choreography

Today’s bands think that, like expensive videos, people want to see a tight, well-executed dance routine, and reckon that if a performance is dominated by fit dancers flexing their bodies across the stage, we won’t notice that the song or the singing is crap. But we do. Thanks Michael.

8. The fans

The blind adoration of Jackson’s devoted following was always as creepy as the man himself appeared to be. Waiting for days outside his hotel, desperate for a mere glimpse - don’t they have jobs? Pleading his innocence against every accusation, refusing to believe he could ever do wrong even in the face of mounting evidence - were they trying to convince us or themselves? Most disturbingly, it was reported that a dozen fans committed suicide after learning of Jacko’s death.

9. Legacy

Much like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jackson will be more powerful in death than in life. He’s already been hoisted on a pedestal as a prophet, a divine being, a tortured soul who’s found his escape. When his music is played now, it will be followed by gushing reverence and devout praise. He was a singer, not a saint.

10. ‘Earth Song’

Overblown with sanctimony and irritatingly naive, ‘Earth Song’ was a pompous sermon from an isolated millionaire, with a video whose budget would feed a Third World country for a decade. Utterly vacuous and devoid of significance. Just ask Jarvis Cocker.

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