By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Try, for a moment, to separate the art from the artist. Consider Michael Jackson's entertainment proffer in a vacuum-sealed space.
In that bubble, where Bubbles and all the peculiarities and plastic surgeries matter not one whit, you will find a man -- and, if you go back far enough into the archives, a child -- who was unquestionably one of the most transcendent performers in popular music.
He was Elvis with an androgynous tenor, Sinatra with a moonwalk and killer pop instincts, Prince with more mass appeal, John, Paul, George and Ringo with high-water pants, white socks and a single, sequined glove.
Jackson was a singular talent, even if he was sometimes derivative. He sang like Frankie Lymon by way of Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, though his soulful, ingratiating voice sounded original and distinctive; to this day, it remains one of the most easily recognizable voices in the world.
Dancing with the explosiveness of James Brown and the smooth grace of Fred Astaire, Jackson was simply mesmerizing whenever he moved across a stage or TV screen -- never more so than on the 1983 special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever." The star-studded concert featured some of Hitsville USA's most legendary figures, but the night belonged to Jackson by virtue of his electrifying performance of "Billie Jean."
Who cared if he was lip-syncing? Those moves!! When he unleashed the gravity-defying moonwalk roughly 3 1/2 minutes in, it was over: Jackson had had his Elvis-(or the Beatles)-on-the-Ed-Sullivan-Show moment, producing the defining performance of his career.
It didn't hurt that "Billie Jean" was a truly potent single, a state-of-the art song built around a sharp, simple drum pattern, an indelible bass line and an undeniable melody. Jackson sang it mostly in that high, feathery tenor of his, but he occasionally slipped into falsetto, mostly to add his signature "HEE hee" vocal licks. The lyrics were no laughing matter, though, as Jackson was sneering about paternity suits.
His star power was staggering from the very start: The Jackson 5 crashed onto the pop radar in 1969 with "I Want You Back," an exuberant song about a guy who's having second thoughts about dumping his lover. Never mind that Jackson wasn't even a teenager when he recorded the lead vocal, and that he had a child's soprano; he sang it convincingly, his pleading voice exploding from the speakers.
When the brothers went on TV to sing the up-tempo song, the cherubic Michael was front and center as the featured singer who happened to be a dazzling dancing machine. How could you not be hooked?
As a child star, Jackson was a preternaturally gifted vocalist who had advanced emotional range, whether he was singing the aching, bereft "Never Can Say Goodbye" or the tender promise of a ballad, "I'll Be There."
When he finally went solo, his lyrical themes shifted, becoming more confrontational, hardened and paranoid -- an apparent side effect of not actually having a childhood to enjoy.
But more striking was how his sound developed.
Jackson's instincts as a songwriter, producer and recording artist were nearly unrivaled in the early stages of his solo career, when he and Quincy Jones were crafting of-the-moment, genre-spanning hits. A pop genius with a knack for accessible melodies and rhythmic hooks, Jackson officially introduced himself as a solo artist with 1979's "Off the Wall," whose lead single, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," was a slick, giddy amalgam of disco and funk coated with a pop sheen. Thirty years later, it's still a surefire dance-floor-filler for club DJs who need to send a jolt through the room.
Jackson's epochal "Thriller" album was produced and mixed to within an inch of its life yet managed to sound completely vibrant, whether it was the rhythmically complex album opener, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," or the tough-sounding gangland rocker "Beat It," which Eddie Van Halen sends into overdrive with a fleet-fingered guitar solo.
The latter song was Jackson's first rock crossover, but he was hardly a newcomer to color-blind pop; how fitting, then, that he'd be the artist to break through MTV's color barrier. (It was especially appropriate given that Jackson was elevating music videos from a mere promotional tool to an actual art form.)
Although discussions about Jackson's music often begin and end with "Thriller," he hardly withered away in the considerable shadow cast by that cultural juggernaut. The title track of the "Thriller" follow-up, "Bad," presented Jackson as a swaggering neo-soul man who was completely comfortable blending thoroughly modern sounds (synths, programmed drums) with a dash of classicism (horn charts and a wicked Hammond B-3 solo by organ master Jimmy Smith). By 1991, he'd switched it up again, jumping on the new jack swing bandwagon, in which he found himself riding shotgun alongside the movement's figurehead, Teddy Riley.
But Jackson eventually lost his place at the forefront of pop music; by 1995, his songs were starting to sound as though they'd been cryogenically frozen in a previous decade.
Still, in his heyday, he was the Michael Jordan of pop, the performer against whom all other wannabes were -- and continue to be -- measured. That's particularly true of high-voiced male singers who favor R&B and can't stand still onstage (Usher, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, etc.), though his considerable influence crossed gender lines: Beyoncé and Britney have both cited Jackson as one of their greatest inspirations.
Of course they did; Michael Jackson was a masterful performer whose prowess onstage, in videos and in the studio has never been matched in the pop space.
He was one of the greats -- not for nothing did the King of Pop moniker stick -- and his face is destined to be carved onto pop's Mount Rushmore. It's just too bad that so much of the discussion surrounding the tribute will be about how Jackson's nose should look on the monument.