MJ: The Earlier Years

Okay… so i am FINALLY doing an MJ-related post. You may be asking yourself, ‘if you’re not that big on pop music, why do you always mention that Michael Jackson is your favorite artist?’

The thing is, while i actually do enjoy his music my love for MJ actually has nothing to do with his music. To me, the art he has produced has to do everything with his experience outside of that art. Sociopolitically, he is an incredibly polarizing figure. He is the physical embodiment of a warning of what happens when you don’t deal with childhood trauma in healthy, wholistic ways. He strongly challenged hypermasculinity- and at the same time embraced particular types of misogyny.

Because he is either extremely lionized or demonized, there aren’t to many examinations of his contradictions in ways that humanize him.

He grew up being trained by the decidedly (so-called) apolitical Motown machine (where he aimed to use that as a virtue as a celebrity), while the world around him- with its political upheavals, police terror upon economically and sociopolitically marginalized communities, and even changes in how art was created- did not reflect that same apoliticism. He went from the lyrical idealism of ‘We Are The World’ and ‘Black Or White’ … to the anger of the visual second half of ‘Black Or White’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us.’ While being seen as a (so-called) liberal, he espoused unchecked (so-called) conservative values, with songs like ‘Wanna Be (Startin’ Somethin’)’. If, say, a republican politician said something like, “If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby,” many of MJ’s fans would probably be upset. Understandably, given that said politician has the ability to create policies.

However, Michael Jackson sang those lyrics, and many who would take up issue with the politician, happily sing those same lyrics. Even songs like ‘Man In The Mirror’ and ‘Keep The Faith’ read with a sort of ‘bootstrap theory’ conservatism that he gets away with consistently. i see thousands upon thousands of criticisms when it comes to the ‘persona’ of MJ, but never a solid critique of the lyrical content.

The strongest defense of his conservatism (if people were inclined to defend that sort of thing) is the posthumously released ‘Abortion Papers (aka ‘Song Groove’)’. Given that the man wrote a ton of songs, it’s curious to me why they chose THAT one to be released on Bad 25. His contradictions are vast- and again, if ANYONE else were to do at least a quarter of the things he did, no one would be talking about his impact, even 13 years after his absence on this earth.

‘But the values you espouse are the polar opposite of his- why is he your favorite artist?’

Because he was the very public face of so many of our internal and societal struggles and contradictions. No one has done that before, and no one has done that since. Michael Jackson was the catalyst for me to actively want to work on my own healing from childhood trauma. i had a similar childhood (without the fame, obviously), and i didn’t want to end up like him. MJ’s music (and how he presented himself) isn’t just a bunch of popular culture jargon; it’s about how an African man did his best to survive environments that consistently attempted to box him in. i have a ton of criticisms all day about it, but for all intents and purposes he was declared ‘weird’ both by internal circles and outside of them, and he embraced that weird.

Most probably see him as a larger-than life celebrity (who did some weird stuff); i see him as a person learning to survive in a world that enabled excess and consumption as a means of dealing with any sort of struggle. Whether it’s ‘celebrity culture’ thriving and profiting off of mental health breakdowns, or family, friend or religious communities encouraging you to perform/pray/laugh the pain away; Michael Jackson left this earth never really having gotten the help he needed.

This Is It (which i finally watched after 9 years of boycotting it) is the WORST movie i have ever seen in my life. MJ was clearly going through the motions, and his voice was diminished where, even at the final scene after the credits’ roll, he’s just having a mini tantrum. The movie was terribly edited, and was a clear cash grab/rush job. For 2.5 years i was in the midst of writing a book on MJ, where i interviewed people who were impacted by him, who loved him and who worked directly with him. The book’s primary theme was not a biography, but it was about him being the catalyst to my own healing. He passed, as i was 3/4 of the way done. After June 25, 2009 i ceased writing it, out of respect to him. i never really looked at the book again, and honestly don’t have a desire to.

i felt incredibly disgusted by a film like This Is It, because Michael Jackson, to me, was more than an entertainer. Past the music and the image, his impact reached people in places who don’t even have much access to many of those things. All This Is It proved was that Michael Jackson’s labor was exploited, just like the rest of us. Capitalism be capitalismin’.

So doing this post wasn’t that easy for me. Because as much as i like MJ’s music, i realize that i don’t really CARE about the music, as much as i think about the impact he’s made on my life in ways outside of it. MJ’s music didn’t get me through hard times (like, say, a Metallica). MJ didn’t influence my political analysis (like punk did). MJ got me to get up and dance- but just getting up and dance isn’t what makes you my favorite artist.

i tried playing to a number of songs, and it was hard. I wasn’t necessarily in a mental space because again, while there are songs i find some value in, i don’t connect with the songs in the same ways i connect with (again), a Metallica. i mean, ‘Childhood’ is a musical rationalization for why the dude should continue problematic behavior. “I am the way i am because… bad childhood. SO LET ME BE ME!!!” i’m like, ‘Michael, i had a traumatic childhood too homie. No excuse.’

But i digress…

The other thing about his music- particularly with later stuff- is that its base is drum programming. So i need to practice the songs a little more to get to an arrangement that makes at least a modicum of sense. i’m not a John Robinson or a Jonathan Moffett. i’m not the best at ghost notes (yet), and ghost notes are ALLLLLLL over MJ albums. With that, i figured i’d start out with some earlier stuff.

i suppose we will be chronological here, and start with some Jackson 5. From (the one of my favorites from that era) and Third Album we have the deep cut ‘How Funky Is Your Chicken’. The post 60s era of Motown is my favorite, because (a. the musicians got to show their chops a bit more (as opposed to the constraints of appealing to ‘Middle America’), and (b. While not incredibly revolutionary, the music had more political subject matter (to Berry Gordy’s chagrin).

‘Chicken’ is a fun song; it’s one of many that highlighted a ‘dance craze’ (shout out to Rufus Thomas). Can y’all do the funky chicken? DO ITTTTTTTT!

Next, we have the title track from a (from my vantage point) pretty slept-on J5 album, ‘Skywriter’. The song had an early use of the flanger, plus some pretty dope bass lines. The album also has the very questionable ‘Touch’ (which the Supremes also did- it was not unusual for Motown groups to do a lot of the same songs). That song is WAY too adult for a bunch of kids to be singing.

Nevertheless, ‘Skywriter’ is fairly innocuous, considering.

Finally, we have one of my top 5 favorite MJ songs of all time, ‘Take Me Back’, from one of my top favorite albums, Forever, Michael. Though they popped out on occasion on other albums, that was the album where you really began to see some of the beloved flourishes MJ did as an adult.

i have every J5 and MJ album on vinyl; two of the singles from Forever, Michael (‘Take Me Back’ and ‘We’re Almost There’) are the first time i recall there being completely different mixes from the album versions. In interviews, he stated that Forever, Michael was the first album where he felt free to contribute to making decisions in regards to the process. The album was a clear nod to varying musical styles and artists popular around that time- Chicago and Barry White among others, but of course it’s got Michael’s stamp all over it. With its horns and strings (plus MJ’s desperate vocals), ‘Take Me Back’ sounds simultaneously hopeful/optimistic and downtrodden.

That’s not easy to do, but it was achieved here.