Michael Jackson – A Nation Mourns and the jokes keep rolling in…
Probably a bit late to be writing anything about the decline and fall of everybody’s favourite moonwalker, but in previous weeks I’d run out of time, and in any case, it’s easy to say things you regret if you haven’t really thought them through.
Take the death of Elvis, for example. If you held any sort of connection to the punk scene in 1976, or even if you were mildly rebellious in your own special, angst-fuelled way, Elvis’s demise was an absolute gift. The doyen of your parents’ generation, who still played Las Vegas in a ridiculous glittery catsuit, died eating a huge cheeseburger. On the toilet. So, in death, there was a natural follow on from the joke that was his life, and this gave you all the permission and ammunition that you needed in order to poke fun at the tragic quiffy tears that ensued. In fact, Elvis, and his death, remind a fairly standard and standing joke to anyone on my generation for at least a decade. Then, with a fairly embarrassed sense of maturity, we played his back catalogue and realised that here was someone who really did change the world by…well, just being, really.
So, just as we split Elvis into 56 & Sun & Sam Phillips, morphing into post-GI film singer into Vegas Karate kid into overweight pastiche, we can probably plot a similar course for M Jackson, although I would probably claim that there was rather less to his rise, and a bit more to his decline.
Jackson’s entry into the public consciousness was as the lead singer/lead vehicle for the Jackson 5 in the early 1970’s. It’s easy to forget that they broke new ground in accessibility to a fusion of soul, gospel and pop music, and that, despite, or because of Jackson Sr’s approach, they worked as hard as any professional outfit. And Michael was 7 at the time. Just think of any 7 year old child that you know and ask yourself if they could knock out 100 gigs a year, if they could ever be that musically mature, and if they could make the hairs on the back of your neck by singing ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’.
The thing is, I’m not sure that Michael Jackson, in my head, ever managed to build on that fantastic period at Tamla Motown; and era that gave us ABC, Mama’s Pearl, Going Back to Indiana, Rockin’ Robin; songs that didn’t really mean that much (and why should that ever matter in pop music), but that just sounded pretty cool. Some might say that he reached his zenith during his 20’s and 30’s, on the back of Thriller, and Bad, but, let’s face it, that was Michael Jackson in the hands of the genius that is Quincy Jones, rather than anything more creative, or mature.
The third era of Jackson trying to find some purpose while apparently going slightly mad in a fury of flashguns and celebrity splurges, was, frankly embarrassing. And I think it is that lack of maturity, in fact that pretty regressive approach to growing up that was irritating and annoying.
And given that the third era is the one that has sold and continues to sell papers, it would be easy to focus on that alone. But, learning from EA Presley’s rollercoaster of public affection in life and in death, we should be wary of being too dismissive. The Michael Jackson that I thought was fantastic had disappeared by 1980 (and if you don’t believe it, just listen to the Jackson 5 back catalogue, back to back with the Thriller fillers). But just because his equivalent of the Vegas years were tasteless, suspect and embarrassing doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to celebrate the good stuff.