I owe Michael Jackson a huge debt. In many ways, he gave me a music I could call my own. Thriller hit at just the right moment for me, opening a musical path different from that of my parents. Youngsters were already popping and locking on the corners around my neighbourhood and tags were being scrawled on the walls on the way to school. I didn’t have a tape recorder myself, but friends would play the album when I was over, and we would imitate the bigger kids on the block with our own interpretation of the uprock and electric boogie.

Of course, Michael wasn’t hip hop, but he came from the same place, and he related directly to the culture and of course influenced it considerably—the moonwalk, for example, is intimately related to dance steps first taken on concrete. Before moving on to the Rocksteady Crew, Run DMC, and the Fat Boys—and eventually more broadly the music of Black America, including his great paragon, James Brown—he was the voice of the streets for me.

Thriller (1983) was indisputably the height of Michael Jackson’s cultural moment, and his first mature album. While the likewise Quincy Jones-produced Off the Wall (1979) is a great record, it remains a disco album unfolding within the sonic parameters of its time. Thriller, on the other hand, is a boldly original creation in which the more peculiar aspects of Jackson’s personality take centre stage to create both infectious and idiosyncratic music of the kind that would characterise the hard-to-define, mass cultural quasi-genre of pop music in the decades to come.

Gleaming and immaculate, the production holds back on the fireworks with strict discipline—consider, for example, the furtively sparkling trumpet in the bridge and the riveting strings and tightly charged guitar licks at the end of “Billie Jean”—showing us that less is indeed more, even in glittering pop music. And for a large part, Jackson’s delivery is more intense than ever, with notes of the aggression and sense of frustration that would later become so palpable in his songs, ultimately to their detriment.

Significantly, the album carries distinctly tense and troubled undertones, especially in its three most enduring tracks, the playful but also subtly claustrophobic “Thriller”, the at once defiant and exasperated “Beat It”, and the hauntingly ambiguous “Billie Jean.” More than an album, Thriller was a pop cultural statement, manifesting to the world the public persona that would eventually consume Jackson, the man. His stroke of genius, paradoxically, was to start letting out of the closet the skeletons that would eventually come to eclipse to the public his music and performance.

The third Jones-produced album, the uneven but in flashes compelling Bad (1987), built further upon the innovations of Thriller, arguably offering even more polished production while Jackson took further his continuous subversion of masculinity on the bizarre—kinda cool, kinda lame—title track, which today I can’t help but hear as an assertive expression of sexual doubt, while “Smooth Criminal” raised the stakes of the previous album, trapping us as it does dancing to a story of rape and murder.

After that it was over. The keen balancing act between subversion and vitality he had maintained for a brief, exhilarating moment went awry and his downward spiral as both artist and public figure accelerated ruthlessly. While Dangerous (1991) was a convincing statement of ownership in a changed cultural field, and of course sold in the millions, this album—like Off the Wall before it, but without its exuberance—ultimately is trapped in the trends of its time, succumbing to Riley-era swingbeat, faux rap bridges and United Colors of Benetton. I, for one, had lost all interest by this point and will leave the rest of Jackson’s recording career unaddressed here.

Without slighting his elegant, energetic, and at times even emotionally nuanced vocal performance and the astonishing level of craft brought to his music, it is his innovative and exacting dancing that will remain with us as Jackson’s greatest artistic contribution. An inventive development upon—amongst other things—the choreography of Bob Fosse, it jettisons the festive warmth of much of the older choreographer’s work in favour of more extreme stylisation, carrying his penchant for jerky, mechanical movement into more frenetic and alienating territory. Poignantly, Jackson moves as if trapped within his own troubled life pattern. Even with backup, he invariably dances alone—never with someone else—and there’s a palpable lack of joy to his movement. Fred Astaire trapped in a world he never made.

On a newscast on the day of his death, Donna Summer astutely described Jackson’s greatness as his sense of perfection. However, his mastery ultimately is demonstrated by the fact that he allows for inaccuracies, preserving an organic, unpredictable element to his dancing that has eluded his innumerable, syncing imitators. He obviously moves with purpose, but simultaneously infuses every movement with tension, a feeling that anything can happen. His androgynous appearance is not asexual exactly, but rather something more complicated. When he dances, Jackson postulates sexuality with such insistence that its presence is hard to deny. But instead of the comfortable, bodily quality of Fosse’s dancers, it remains elusive, as if expressed by someone who knows that there is such a thing and tries to approximate it without understanding it.

These qualities are all part and parcel of what made Jackson an icon beyond his music. Much has been made of his transcendence of the color line and his importance in this respect is hard to understate, but I suspect his influence here differs slightly from the black empowerment line emphasised especially by the Reverend Al Sharpton this last couple of weeks. Unlike President Obama, for example, Jackson seems not as much an example of a black man achieving the highest cultural consecration, but rather as a cultural figure who managed to make everyone forget that he was black. He may himself have turned his ‘post-racial’ persona into something of a cliché in interviews and public statements, and surely his freakish physical metamorphosis contributed importantly, but the fact that most people only rarely thought about him in terms of his ethnicity is nevertheless a rare achievement.

Although the cultural ramifications of it are less evident, his ambiguous sexuality is surely similarly significant. Although the Peter Pan self-mythology never took off, and definitively crashed and burned with the 2005 child molestation trial—and beyond the remarkable public forgiveness superstardom affords one, if not in life, then at least in death—it is nevertheless striking that somebody that unusual in his sexual expression has become such an icon. I don’t know what this may tell us about popular culture and he is probably too problematic a figure to exert a positive influence in terms of sexual equality, but what he does remind us of, however, is our enduring attraction to lives lived in excess as well as the fact that our heroes emerge from the unlikeliest of places.

Another memory. Before the uprock, Michael Jackson gave me one of the first genuine frights of my life that I remember. I had a friend with a VCR and one day when my brother and I were around at his place, somebody put on the full-length “Thriller” video, in which Michael alternately turns into a werewolf and a zombie in a series of nightmarishly nested metafictional segments. It scared the living daylights out of us! Our mother had to coach us for several hours before we were able finally to sleep that night. While I quickly put my fear of the video behind me, and today find it both endearing and kind of awesome, I still can’t forget that initial shock, an early reminder of the terror of things.

Thank you, Michael.

1 Comment

  1. Smukt, velskrevet piece! Som sædvaneligt!

    Min allerførste oplevelse med Michael Jackson var i virkeligheden igennem Sir James Paul McCartney i 1983, selvom jeg ikke ville indse det de første mange år derefter…

    Say say Say

    Jeg mener, hvorn’ kunne det være andet end et Michael Jackson-nummer? 🙂


    1 Love!

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