Michael Jackson was the greatest dancer who was also a major singing star ever. To find his equal you’d have to look at the two biggest dancing stars in film history, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. (Michael reputedly idolized Mr. Astaire and was deeply moved when he was told by him personally that he was a “great dancer”.) Mr. Kelly and Mr. Astaire, though popular as singers, could not be considered big singing stars. Now, if Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra had such extraordinary dancing talent, I could not have written that first sentence. The other thing I can say unequivocally is this: he was also the greatest male child singer ever. The only other child singer of his caliber was Judy Garland. Of all the child stars on talent shows, the screen and stage, before or since, none have had the musicality, charisma and magic of Mr. Jackson fronting The Jackson 5 at the age of ten. He also was astonishing for his adult-like interpretations which Barry Gordy recently said were “kicking Smokey Robinson’s ass” at the time. “Smokey Robinson,” he said! (Both Mr. Gordy and Tavis Smiley said he sang as though he had a grown man’s understanding of love.)
As for his musical contributions I know I am not smart enough to understand his place in music history. I defer to Miles Davis, who said of him: “He’s good, but he ain’t no original.” When Mr. Davis said a musician was “good” it was like a typical commentator saying he was “a genius”. No intelligent person familiar with jazz could say Miles Davis was less than one of the most important geniuses of that genre (a virtuoso musician and prolific composer who co-invented at least three artistically significant new idioms: cool jazz, hard bop and freebop). He was also one of the all-time great talent scouts and a thoroughly educated musicologist so, if he says Michael Jackson’s music was derivative, I am going to go along with it. That doesn’t mean that he was any less great. Greatness, by one measurement is power over people – be it through tyranny or charisma – and Mr. Jackson mesmerized hundreds of millions. Further, he had so much “feel” and musical talent that he could draw from and meld together so many different idioms and styles that he came up with unique and fresh-sounding material for each of his major albums. As for his singing chops, he was a true virtuoso vocalist. As a stage presence, again, “the-one-and-only”.
As a cultural contributor, for better or worse, at the height of his pop-ularity, his influence was incomparable. Be it a lone glove, a dance move, military-influenced sequined jackets or vocal stylings, no first-world country’s young populace was unaffected. There will possibly never be another performer who is “Michael Jackson-huge” in the same way as he.
His place in the business of music was once a phenomenon that we will never see again. He changed the business, in the prime of Business-America’s greed, so that record labels were no longer interested in developing artists who could only generate “sub-gold record” sales (less than 500,000 copies sold). That industry had its comeuppance in advance of the current Wall Street and financial crises due to the “democratization” the internet brought to recorded music. There is an irony that Mr. Jackson expired more or less concurrently with the recording industry paradigm he was instrumental in forming. In the commercial sense – no hype necessary – he was, indisputably, “The King of Pop”.
His private life was a promotional disaster. It has often been said that he was robbed of his childhood. I don’t see it that way. On the surface, it appears he was robbed of his adulthood. He never learned to function as an adult; but there is much evidence, in home movies and testimony of people who knew him, that he had a happy, if not ecstatic, childhood. He appeared to want to remain an eternal child, electing not to leave his parent’s home until he was in his twenties and seeking the company of children and adolescents afterwards. This predisposition, which I always wanted to believe was innocuous, was childishly unguarded, if in fact it was always innocent. On the one hand, all one has to do in contemporary times is point a finger and say “harassment” or “molester” to reap financial rewards or falsely imprison an innocent person. One knows Mr. Jackson was a perfect target both for his wealth and his personality. The only troubling thing is the number of allegations and the lack of support from his former lovers and spouses.
His premature death, at the age of 50, is understandable. The pressure of not being able to show his face in public, anywhere in the world, is enough. To have to stand up to allegations of the most heinous criminal acts is more. Still increasing tension was his discomfort with his own face which led to a singular example, in the public eye, of a relatively young man addicted to plastic surgery turning into a reverse-Picture of Dorian Gray grotesque reality. That’s more stress than my heart could bear and stress is a killer. Add drugs, if, in truth, they were present in his life at the time of his death, and one can see a literal fait accompli.
On several occasions, Mr. Jackson’s music brought forth great joy into my life. The first time was at Walter Reed Junior High School. African-American kids were being bused in from their urban blight to my suburban blight and for the first time I had the opportunity to socialize with my black contemporaries. The school held a bi-annual talent contest and three foxy, vivacious, black women in “hot pants” and “naturals” named Leelee, Keisha and Wanda choreographed a dance to The Jackson 5’s “ABC”. I loved that music from that day forward. The most attractive dancer Leelee, became the girlfriend of one of the most gifted athletes I have ever known, Aaron Mitchell, who was also black and a star of all three of the team sports boys played. Later, long after I had thought of The Jackson 5, Mr. Jackson got some airplay in Eugene, Oregon (where I attended college) with some tracks from an album that showed a lot of jazz influence and, I was surprised by the cool groove and his level of musicianship. A couple of years after, he emerged a fully-formed giant talent on MTV and, suffice it to say, some of the young women I consorted with considered his music integral to the evening’s festivities. The music was epic too.