Don’t Act Like You Were Never Into Michael Jackson
Don’t act like you were never into Michael Jackson. And don’t act like you never busted a move, even privately, to ‘Billie Jean,’ ‘Thriller,’ ‘Bad’ or any of the other endless, massive hits he charted during his 40 years making music.
It’s easy now to dismiss Jackson as some kind of freak. His various legal problems, eccentricities and crappy records at the end of his career did him no favors. By the time he passed away, five years ago today at the age of 50, Jackson had racked up 17 No. 1 singles. It’s an impressive tally, no matter what you think of him as a person.
And the fact that a huge chunk of those songs — starting with his first in 1969, when he was just 11 years old, ‘I Want You Back’ — ranks among the very best of popular music in the 20th century is even more impressive. Few artists have topped those hits.
My own musical relationship with Jackson started when I was just five years old, and my dad bought me the very first album I ever owned: the Jackson 5’s ‘Greatest Hits.’ I liked almost every song on the record — ‘ABC,’ ‘The Love You Save,’ ‘Mama’s Pearl’ — but it was ‘I Want You Back’ that drove me to the music and sent my dad to the store to buy me the album.
All these years later, ‘I Want You Back’ is still my favorite record of all time.
Throughout my classic-rock stage, I still listened to the Jackson 5’s terrific string of singles. Throughout my punk stage, I owned ‘Thriller’ and knew almost every single word to almost every single song (except for maybe ‘The Lady in My Life,’ which still is by far the weakest song on that classic LP). Throughout my life, Jackson’s music has been there. And on my record shelf today sits ‘Off the Wall,’ ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad.’
And that old tattered vinyl copy of the Jackson 5’s ‘Greatest Hits’ is still here somewhere too.
Jackson’s influence cut through age, race, sex and generations. Much has been made about his breaking of the color barrier on MTV in 1982, when the fledgling network had an unwritten rule about playing white artists and white artists only. Jackson broke down those walls.
But more importantly, he opened up the music floodgates in the ’80s for all sorts of artists to come in and admit that, yeah, ‘Billie Jean’ is an awesome song. Countless bands have covered (and copied and borrowed and stolen) Jackson’s riffs, moves and vocal style over the years. You can hear it mostly in pop music, but whenever someone else — an indie artist, a metal artist, etc. — breaks into a groove that hits you below the belt and gets your hips shaking, there’s no doubt that Jackson is somehow rooted to it.
It became almost a cliche during his final years to mock Jackson. Even with all of those achievements — a No. 1 hit when he was just 11, a solo career that eclipse an already legendary group run, freakin’ ‘Thriller’ — the man began to overshadow the music.
Which is a shame, because the music is what mattered. And it’s what matters now. And it will always matter. Find me another song that packs the power and emotion (not to mention the sheer musical electricity) of ‘I Want You Back.’ Yes, Motown’s ace studio crew had a huge in hand in the song’s arrangement and production. And it’s such a great song that it’s almost impossible to ruin (just ask Colbie Caillat or the Civil Wars or anyone else who’s covered it over the years).
But 11-year-old Michael’s performance of the song is what sells it. Did he know what he was singing about at the time? Probably not. But does it matter? Singers crawl their way through decades-long careers searching for the heart and soul that MJ injects into those three minutes. And that was his very first time at bat.
Nobody will ever unite music fans like Michael Jackson did. Nobody. Ever. Again. That’s partly because music isn’t anywhere near as divided as it was 32 years ago. But it’s mostly because there will never be another music star like Michael Jackson to pull us together and to conquer the world.
There will never be another album like ‘Thriller,’ a record that everybody owned — moms, dads, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, grandmas. It was more than a chart-dominating album. It was a cultural milestone. And we’ll never see anything like it ever again.
Music has changed too much. And so have the times. And so have our definitions of what a pop star is (Justin Bieber? Please … ). There’s no going back to that now. We’ve come too far; we wouldn’t know how.
So don’t act like you were never into Michael Jackson. We all were. And five years after his tragic death, we’re still hearing his influence every single day.