Why He's a Thriller

Michael Jackson's songs, steps and sexy aura set a flashy beat for the decade

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 6)

This success is a matter of moment simply because, as Jones says, "it has never happened to a black performer." Before anyone declares a three-day holiday on behalf of brotherhood, it ought to be pointed out that, inevitably, the qualities that make Jackson's music so accessible also divert it from expectations of what popular black music ought to be. Those expectations, however, do not invariably come from the same source as the music. Rock critics (who are mostly white) liked Thriller well enough and wrote respectfully of it when it was released in December 1982, but they were as surprised as record-company executives (who are mostly white) when the album started burning its way into the country's collective musical consciousness. The fine points of what Thriller might have been, and was not, seemed petty to the audiences (mostly young) who gave the record its initial push, who hip-hopped to it in clubs and break-danced to it in the streets this past summer. The message is obvious anyway: soul is for sharing, not segregating.

Jackson knows his roots and reveres them. In one of his frequent ascensions to the Grammy rostrum a couple of weeks ago, he leaned down to the microphone, announced, "I have something very important to say...really," and proceeded to thank and honor Jackie Wilson. Dead only five weeks before the awards, from the side effects of a heart attack that had paralyzed him for almost a decade, Wilson was one of the greatest of all American soul singers. He sang high and hard, like Jackson, and like him, projected a dazzling sexual aura. Jackson's sexuality is more ethereal—Wilson in performance was like a tomcat—but both singers share a grounding in music that is almost equal parts soul and show biz.

Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon were some of his contemporaries, but the singer who really knocked Jackie Wilson out was Al Jolson. Jackson may dance like Baryshnikov straddling a jackhammer, move like a street blood steeped in Astaire and t'ai chi, sing like an angel on a soul-food bender, but a fair portion of his personal taste and his musical inspiration comes from the sort of glitzy places where soul seldom strays. One of his favorite things is My Favorite Things, sung by Julie Andrews, raindrops on roses, warm woolen mittens and all. He loves the Beatles, and he also loves Gordon MacRae booming his way through Oh What a Beautiful Morning.

Jackson cares so little about conventional standards of hipness that he can rise above embarrassment on such matters of taste. His catholicity directs him straight to the vital center of contemporary pop culture. Thriller is an insinuating, invigorating album, but it is not the kind of great album one has come to expect since the tumultuous days of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: a record that provokes, challenges, raises questions and laughs at answers. Thriller is not Who's Next or The White Album or Blonde on Blonde or Songs in the Key of Life or Born to Run, records that were argued over and championed like talismans that could change lives. It is like a piece of elegant sportswear: slip right into it, shrug it off. Jackson has written and performed ebulliently with Paul McCartney; he often appears in bright band jackets; he has palled around a bit with Sean Ono Lennon and has taken him to a Broadway show. It should be clear from all this that Jackson is smitten not only with the Beatles' legacy but with their mystique. Unlike the Beatles, however, he has a vast audience but a small constituency.

In England now, rock is exploding in small bursts all over the place, but there is no single focus or figurehead for the movement, let alone the kind of triumvirate (Beatles-Stones-Who) that reigned during the mid-'60s. In America there is Michael Jackson, with no clear movement behind him, just an unprecedented momentum that has sent him off on a dazzling solo flight. Stevie Wonder is still flourishing, and Lionel Richie is the most elegant songwriter in the neighborhood. Donna Summer can be spectacular; Prince is incandescent; Rick James cataclysmic; rap groups are the rough conscience of the streets. But commercially and aesthetically, they all revolve in separate orbits that only occasionally intersect. Jackson is a world apart, a phenomenon that exists in much the same way that the star himself lives. In isolation.

Director Steven Spielberg has remarked that "if E.T. hadn't come to Elliott, he would have come to Michael's house." He reflects that Jackson is like a hybrid of outer space's most famous tourist and of Chauncey Gardiner, the video-bedazzled innocent whom Peter Sellers portrayed in Being There. "I think Michael can be hurt very easily," Spielberg says. "He's sort of like a fawn in a burning forest." Jones watched Michael break down several times while recording She's Out of My Life for Off the Wall, and eventually just left the crying on the track. Jackson also teared up repeatedly while recording the children's album E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. During a break in a photo session for the album, Spielberg saw Jackson chatting and swapping gestures with E.T. "It's a nice place Michael comes from," Spielberg observes. "I wish we could all spend some time in his world."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6