Friday, July 03, 2009

Flashback Friday: Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson has been gone a week and there's still no word on a funeral service. I don't think it will be Princess Diana big, but it'll be big enough.

Anyhow, I don't want to overkill on this global superstar, but I felt that he deserved a special Flashback Friday post. In this post, I'll chart my Top Ten favourite songs and music videos, as well as my four favourite albums of his.

Before I get to that, I looked in a couple more stores for a copy of his Dangerous cd and I'm just amazed that you can't find a single CD of his anywhere. Who knew that his death would cause a buying craze among fans? I'm probably like most of his fans who had moved on to other music and haven't really listened to his classics in years.

However, I am shocked that some fans are so distraught by his death that they have taken their own lives because they couldn't imagine a world without Michael Jackson. Scary! But, I remember hearing about the same thing when Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. MTV VJs had to tell viewers not to harm themselves. With Michael, none other than Civil Rights activist Jesse Jackson (no relation) has come out with a special message to fans who might be thinking of harming themselves.

I was just thinking the other day that there was one five year period where Michael could do no wrong. With his family, he really dominated the music scene from 1983 through 1988. To recap...Thriller was released in late 1982. "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Thriller" charted as singles and stunning videos in 1983. In 1984, he swept the Grammy Awards by collecting no less than eight wins. One of them was for voicework he did for the audio book of Spielberg's classic film E.T. (sad that nearly two decades later, he supposedly hired a voodoo practitioner to put a curse on Spielberg for making a Peter Pan film without him in the starring role).

Also in 1984 came the Pepsi commercial and the Victory album and tour with his brothers (which spawned three hits: "State of Shock," "Torture," and "Body"). He sang backup on Rockwell's only hit song "Somebody's Watching Me." Around this time, his brother Jermaine had three hit songs of his own ("Dynamite," "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming," and "Do What You Do"). Sister Rebbie scored her only (marginal) hit song, "Centipede." In 1985, Michael was instrumental in writing and gathering the great group of American recording artists to record "We Are the World" for charity, with proceeds going to help the famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. His next album was due in 1986, but it was possible that he delayed it until the following year because he wanted his baby sister Janet to finally achieve success of her own with her third album Control. Like her brother, she had a string of hits from a single album, all matched with clever videos.

In 1987 came Bad and the parade of hit singles well into 1988, when he went on tour. Finally in 1988, he also released the fantasy film Moonwalker (in theaters around the world, straight to video in the U.S. It's still not available on DVD) and an autobiography, Moonwalk (no relation to the film he released), that included a forward by none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who worked as a New York book editor in the 1980s).

What an amazing five year run of success. As I get older, five years goes by much quicker than it did when lived as a kid (I was in the 5th grade when Thriller was unleashed and the 11th grade when Moonwalker landed on video).

As for his music videos, let's have the countdown...

10. "You Are Not Alone"

9. "Earth Song"

8. "They Don't Care About Us"

7. "Smooth Criminal"

6. "In the Closet" (guest starring supermodel Naomi Campbell)

5. "Black or White" (features the Home Alone kid, Macauley Culkin. I loved the diverse costumed people he dances with...particularly the Thai dancers, and the morphing scene at the end. The panther scene and destructive dance sequences at the end was a waste).

4. "Beat It"

3. "Billie Jean"

2. "Remember the Time" (Great ancient Egyptian backdrop, with Eddie Murphy as the Pharoah Ramses and supermodel Iman as Queen Nefertiti. Magic Johnson shows up as well).

And my #1 favourite Michael Jackson music video goes to...

Duh! "Thriller" brought music video concepts to a whole new level. Before this expensive short film, music videos tended to be poorly thought out, cheaply made advertisements for the song. Its always amusing to watch music videos from the early 1980s. It was part of Michael's genius to see where music videos could go and he really transformed the medium. The Zombie dance sequence is simply classic. I'd love to do that dance in a group someday. It has spawned many imitators, but there's only one who did it first.

Now for my favourite songs by Michael Jackson (I've excluded group collaborations and duets)...

10. "Stranger in Moscow"

9. "Remember the Time"

8. "Will You Be There?" (great Gospel-tinged chorus!)

7. "In the Closet" (this song has a nasty funk to it and also features Madonna's whispered vocals)

6. "You Rock My World" (when this single was released in 2001, I thought Michael was on the verge of a comeback. The melody is simply groovalicious. Too bad the rest of the CD this came from, Invincible, was such a dud)

5. "Human Nature" ("why? why?")

4. "Billie Jean"

3. "Thriller"

2. "Beat It" (Eddie Van Halen does the guitar honours)

And my all time favourite Michael Jackson song is...

1. "Man in the Mirror" -- Take a look in the mirror and make that change! Michael took the lyrics way too seriously!

Now for the Michael Jackson albums. I never heard his Off the Wall album aside from the released singles ("Off the Wall", "Rock With You", and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough"). I stopped buying his CDs after 1995, so I didn't get the remix album Blood on the Dance Floor (1997) or Invincible (2001), though I did borrow that one for a listen and only liked a couple songs.

Here's my list of the remaining ones...

4. HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. Disc One featured 15 of his classic hits. Disc Two featured 15 new songs. The album cover suggests major narcissitic vanity (he's imitating countries where "the cult of personality" exists by making a huge statue of himself looming larger than life). His long-awaited duet with sister Janet ("Scream") was a disappointing noise and the video (which surpassed the spending record for both "Torture" and "Thriller") was a complete waste. I liked his videos to "They Don't Care About Us" (filmed in Brazil), "You Are Not Alone" (features a naked Lisa Marie Presley as they pretend to be lovers in bed even though they were married at the time), and "Earth Song" (his "Heal The World" of this album). To really understand the mind of Michael Jackson, watch the video to his lullaby-esque "Childhood." I liked his song "History" and its use of historical clips. "Stranger in Moscow" is a cool sounding song, but I was surprised by the title when I first heard it. I'd never connect Michael Jackson to a place like Moscow. But I love songs that use geographical names in the title: "One Night in Bangkok", "Snow on the Sahara," "London Calling," "Leaving Las Vegas," etc.

When this album came out, I knew that his career would be history. I noticed it with other artists. Once you put out a greatest hits album, its like the listening public views it as a musical obituary. Only few seem to transcend it. Already with HIStory, we started seeing the angry Jackson that was only hinted at in 1988's "Leave Me Alone" single. "D.S." is a thinly veiled rant against the prosecutor in the 1993 molestation case. "Money" is about the greedy people who are after his wealth. Listening to some of the songs, you really feel his paranoia coming through and it made you miss the fun loving Jackson of his Thriller days.

3. Bad. It was the most anticipated album in 1987. People had fun with the title, thinking it was truly "bad" (in the original meaning of the world). However, the album sold over 30 million copies and spawned 5 #1 hit singles (a record still unbroken). I listened to it a lot as a teenager, so it hasn't worn well over the years. Its good, but not great. Especially after I hadn't listened to his music in years and started re-listening to his CDs that I have. "Bad" was supposedly a "sequel" to his single "Beat It" but it doesn't carry the same weight. I never get tired of listening to "Beat It." It is a true classic. "Bad," however was tired after a few listens.

On this album, my favourites include "Man in the Mirror" (obviously), "Liberian Girl," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" (I first heard this song during my family's 3 week vacation through Great Britain in August 1987), "Smooth Criminal" and "Another Part of Me." When Jackson performed a concert in London during his Bad Tour, he supposedly hesitated to sing "Dirty Diana" because Princess Diana was in attendance. However, she apparently loved that song. Its his hardest rock sound (Janet Jackson's "Black Cat" appeared to be a copycat of that song, as it was her hardest rock sound).

2. Dangerous. Probably one of the gaudiest and worst album covers I had ever seen. Its simply "too busy" for me to feel comfortable looking at (I prefer simple album covers, like Sinead O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got or Johnny Clegg and Savuka's Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World). Released in November 1991, but I didn't buy it because I was in the Navy then and didn't want to look uncool buying a Michael Jackson album. Especially not after I saw a CNN segment that showed crazy fans who weren't afraid to show how excited they were to get this album. Sailors made fun of these fans. Besides, I was more into Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Steel Pulse, Wilson Phillips, and Garth Brooks at this time. And I had endured teasing by my fellow company mates in Basic Training when I bought Huey Lewis and the News latest release, Hard at Play at the Navy Exchange. I wasn't about to endure all that again!

It wasn't until the three days I spent on a submarine in April 1992 on my way to Naples, Italy from La Maddalena, Sardinia that I heard Dangerous for the first time. The yeoman on the submarine would play the CD in the office and jam to it. I had to admit, the beats were pretty fresh. I liked most of the songs. "In the Closet" offers his nastiest funk ever. Its something you'd expect from Prince, not Michael. I really liked the gospel flavour of "Will You Be There?" but I have no idea why that song was picked to be the "theme song" to the movie Free Willy. The song doesn't really fit the movie. Nor did his "Childhood" single fit the sequel Free Willy 2.

"Gone Too Soon" was written for his friend Ryan White, the boy who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and faced the ignorant hatred of people in the early days of the AIDS scare. The lyrics of the song, though, fit someone like Michael Jackson ("like a comet blazing across the evening sky, gone too soon..."), so it will most likely be played at his funeral service. "Heal the World" was essentially a retread of "We Are the World" but not as good.

I haven't heard this album in years, though, and am thus dismayed that I can't find a copy of it anywhere. Before his death, they had copies available at the used CD and DVD store that I go to occasionally. If record companies are smart, they are pressing more copies of his CDs and DVDs right now to ship to stores. The shortage, apparently, is nation-wide.

1. Thriller. Surprised? Shouldn't be. This is far and away his best album. Even the album cover is classic (not to mention simple). Back in 1983 when my dad went TDY to South Korea for a few months, he brought back "illegal" copies of the Thriller cassette and Culture Club's Colour By Numbers cassette. He gave my brother the Thriller album and I ended up with Culture Club. But since we shared a bedroom, I listened to it as well. I was surprised by how many songs were released as singles and played on the radio. The first time I heard his song "The Girl is Mine" with Paul McCartney, I thought he was a woman (Diana Ross, I supposed) and when I listened to the lyrics, I couldn't understand why the lady was fighting over a girl with a guy. I thought it was about divorce. When I learned that it was Michael Jackson and that he was once part of the Jackson 5, I vaguely remembered watching the cartoon show as a kid as well as hearing their disco song "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" a few years earlier.

On Facebook, I have a quiz about me where most people marked the wrong answer for "First Album I Really Loved." A lot of people suspected Thriller, which would have been true if I hadn't been completely crazy about Blondie's Autoamerican album in 1980. That was the first album that I really loved and couldn't stop listening to. Thriller was second. Besides the singles "Billie Jean", "Beat It", and "Thriller", I really love "Human Nature" and was glad to see it sampled in a 1994 song by female vocal trio SWV. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, at one venue, they played "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," which is a testament to the timeless appeal of the songs on this album. It quickly became the best selling album of all time within a year or two of release and has only maintained that distinction as it continues to sell.

So, there you have it, folks. A list of my favourites by Michael Jackson. May his music continue to play on earth forever. Those who don't realize how big he is, there was a guy in my company in Basic Training named Jackson. We didn't know first names, so when we heard them for the first time, its always a surprise. Usually, it happened during mailcall in the evening. Well, once the Mail petty officer called out "Michael Jackson" and the whole company laughed. The guy who had the name (a good ole southern boy) was embarrassed, but he was born when the star wasn't so big. In 1985, the last of my cousins was born and his parents wanted to name him Michael. They had talked about giving Grandpa's name (Jackson) as his middle name, but nixed the idea because they figured that people would think that they named their son after the famous singer. They were very wise about that decision!

One final thought about Michael Jackson. I really hope that they turn his Neverland Ranch into a museum like Elvis Presley's Graceland or William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle. I'd love to see it someday. A former co-worker of mine went to Neverland Ranch when he was 10 years old as part of an elementary school trip when he lived in the Santa Ynez area. When he first told me that a couple years ago, I joked about his drinking "Jesus Juice" with Michael Jackson, but he swears that he never met the guy. Turning Neverland into a museum/amusement park is a guaranteed money maker. Fans around the world will make their pilgrimage.

Best wishes, King of Pop. Thanks for the memories, the music, and the magic. There will never be another one like you. You really started somethin'.

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