Friday, Jun. 26, 2009

No Celebrity Supernova Burned Brighter Than Jackson At the Peak of His Career

Michael Jackson's glorious decade began with a forgotten failure. Michael hadn't yet turned 20 when he got his first co-starring role in a big movie: The Wiz, a black version of The Wizard of Oz that had been a hit on Broadway. Jackson was cast as the Scarecrow, and he studied hard for the role, his impossible flexibility and cheerful demeanor making him an ideal companion to Diana Ross's Dorothy. But nothing in the project jelled. The Wiz was an expensive flop, with one important asterisk: Jackson struck up a friendship with the film's musical supervisor, Quincy Jones.

For nearly a quarter-century, Jones had been helping singers sound their best: Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald. The Wiz was just a bump in Jones' yellow brick road, or perhaps a fortunate detour. Jackson, already ensconced at Epic Records, asked Jones to produce his next album. It would be a great career move for both men. Off the Wall, their first collaboration and Jackson's fifth studio album, was the one that shaped MJ's style, spawned some hits and sped him toward superstardom.

The new assurance was evident from the album's first single, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." With a disco beat indebted to the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever and a lyric that was suggestive enough to reportedly incur the disapproval of Michael's mother Katherine, the song went to No. 1 on the U.S. charts. Jackson's voice hadn't changed, but he amped up the level of urgency and authority and tried out the first of the grunts and squeals that would become a vocal trademark. That was surely thanks to Jones; you can almost hear him pushing Jackson to stand tall and sing what he feels, even if words can't possibly express it. "Everybody sang high in Motown, even Stevie [Wonder]," says Jones. "I wanted to feel the full range of his voice, and I wanted him to deal with more mature kinds of themes. That's why 'She's out of My Life,' a song that Tommy Baylor wrote about the very bad ending of a marriage, that I was saving for Sinatra, I did with Michael. Because Michael I don't think had ever dealt with an emotion that deep in just a regular normal romance. And he cried on every take. Every take we did, he cried. I left the tears on the record because it was real." Off the Wall launched four singles into the Billboard Top 10 and eventually sold 20 million copies. That made it a giant of its day; it would be a midget next to the album that followed.

Even in his 20s, Jackson's ambition was as hard as his voice was soft. Privately he never hid his desire to become the biggest force in entertainment, and when he and Jones regrouped to begin work on Thriller in 1982, Jackson had every intention of making a career-defining colossus. The amazing thing is that he made such a lovable one.

Jackson and Jones sifted through more than 700 songs by the best professional songwriters in a quest to find nine perfect tracks. "We turned that album upside down," says Jones, and arguments over material were common. Jackson loved the iconic bass line for "Billie Jean"; Jones did not — score one for Jackson. But gradually the two felt confident that they had a record that was all hits and no filler, something the entire world would love — and purchase.

Put Thriller on right now and you'll be amazed at how easily the troubling last years of Jackson's life melt away. For Generation X the magic is partly nostalgic; everyone between the ages of 35 and 45 remembers exactly where they were when they heard "Beat It" for the first time. But as a piece of music, it remains the greatest pop album of all time. "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is the closest thing Jackson has to an overlooked song; not only does it open the album and set a frenetic pace, it also lays out Jackson's ambitious musical agenda — from the disco beat to the rock timbre of the vocals to the closing refrain of "Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa," cribbed from a hit by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango. Thumping and fraught, "Billie Jean" is a sound track to a late-night walk through a sketchy neighborhood. It actually makes Michael Jackson sound dangerous, which is no small feat. Jackson never got much credit for being a pioneer, but "Beat It," his melding of rock and R&B, preceded the collision of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith by four years. Besides featuring a guitar solo provided free of charge by Eddie Van Halen (in a move his accountant no doubt regrets), it's the best example of Jackson's ability to bridge moods and genres. It's tense and spooky. It rocks you while you dance to it. Like all of Thriller, it's a sophisticated joy.

On its way to becoming the best-selling album of all time (until it was eclipsed in 2000 by The Eagles Greatest Hits, 1971-1975), seven of Thriller's songs cracked the Top 10, and the record was immovable atop the Billboard chart for 37 straight consciousness-altering weeks. Consciousness-altering because Jackson was not just dominating the sound waves — he owned the world's airwaves too. After The Wiz, Jackson never had a major role in a Hollywood film. Didn't matter; in a way, he was too special a performer, too big a star, to be part of a director's vision. TV would be his multiplex, MTV his studio, in the minimovies that defined the genre. Sony Music boss Tommy Mottola, who tried to shepherd Jackson through the later, difficult years, is hardly exaggerating when he says, "There was nobody before Michael Jackson, and there will never be anybody after Michael Jackson, that can do for video what he did. It put the MTV culture into the forefront ... He totally defined the video age." In fact, it was Jackson's video that in effect forced the integration of MTV; until "Billie Jean," MTV was mostly lily-white and content to be so.

"Billie Jean," the first video off Thriller, snapped the neck of everyone who saw it. Based on an absurd real-life incident in which a woman accused Jackson of fathering one of her twins ("She says I am the one/ But the kid is not my son"), the song is a denial of paternity — a celebrity's cry of victimhood. But the video is a straight-on display of Jackson's star quality. Any pavement flagstone his feet land on glows a magical green. His moves are no less radiant. The spins, the strutting and hunching, show what Broadway missed out on when Michael decided to make pop music instead.

From "Billie Jean" to "Beat It" (both songs written by Jackson) was another leap forward, and up, with some dexterous star spins in every other direction. Jackson's first video connection to contemporary urban street life, it argues that, between fleeing and fighting, it's better to flee — dancing. The Michael character hears a rumble, dons his red jacket (the must-have fashion piece of 1984) and breaks up the battle by leading the gang members in a routine out of West Side Story but with starker, more staccato moves. A worldwide video as well as audio smash, "Beat It" helped send the MTV logo and format around the globe. For the next decade, if a performer wanted to promote a song, he or she had to make a minimovie to go with it.

Each succeeding Thriller video was more elaborate than the last, expanding in length and complexity. The title video ran nearly 14 min., with the song encased in a narrative that had Michael and his screen girlfriend (Ola Ray) watching a horror movie that comes to life — or rather, undeath. Surrounded in the woods by zombies, Michael becomes one of them, leading the creatures in choreography that would have exhausted any living being.

When it appeared Jackson could simply get no bigger, he divided his talent into 45 little parts and shared it. Inspired by Bob Geldof's Band Aid, Jackson and Lionel Richie co-wrote 1985's "We Are the World," which raised millions for famine relief in Africa and, on the night of the American Music Awards, brought together almost every major pop singer in America in a Los Angeles recording studio. Parts of "We Are the World" have aged poorly (the whole thing went from idea to recording in just 12 hours), but the composition itself is a wonder — flexible enough to deliver a serious message and accommodate the vocal styles of everyone from Kenny Rogers to Bob Dylan. And when Jackson sings the bridge, it's a classic, "'scuse me, genius coming through" moment. His style — so clear and urgent — tops them all.

Any groundbreaking performer in the rock era is lucky to have a few transcendent summers. The magic amalgam of a star's creativity and an audience's rapture can evaporate after two years with, say, an Army induction (Elvis) or after four with a motorcycle accident (Dylan). Sometimes, just turning 25 will do it (Brian Wilson). Madonna lasted longer because she was the Mistress of Makeover. Most find it hard to maintain either popularity or emotional equilibrium. And the brighter they burn, the faster they burn out.

Jackson, as we know, hung around, adding notoriety to his fame and descending, to put it gently, into curio status. But even another two decades of steady hits would have been a decline from the fever pitch of Thriller. The album marked a moment in American history that few singers dream of, let alone achieve: the convergence of talent, material and production that finds universal acclaim. That's part of what makes Jackson's death so historic: he was one of the last singers — Paul McCartney is another — whose songs are literally known everywhere by everyone.

Thriller and "We Are the World" and his introduction of his signature step, the moonwalk, on the Motown 25th-anniversary show took Jackson to an unfathomable level of fame. Jackson was more than a crossover artist, but cross over he did. He was revered by kids black and white — authentic enough to please urban audiences and unthreatening enough to set suburban ones at ease. He was adopted as a cause by Nancy Reagan (they both liked red) but, despite "We Are the World," was shrewd enough to keep his politics to himself. Still, he showed a succession of African-American cultural figures how to transcend race — Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and, finally, Barack Obama. Michael was neither black nor white; he was sui generis, a brother from another planet.

Even as he cranked out another huge record — 1987's Bad, still the only album in history to generate five No. 1 hits — he began to antagonize those who worshipped him. As he added a cleft to his chin and bleach to his face, as his cheekbones got higher and his nose keener, as he sat at a press conference next to Bubbles the chimp and hung out in public with Macaulay Culkin, the love and respect millions felt for Michael got more ... complicated. The kid was adorable. The young man was a thriller. The older man, who clung to a dangerously naive belief in childhood innocence, was in trouble.

And there we reach the cliff's edge. But before Michael Jackson toppled over it, he generated one final keeper, the toweringly indulgent but well-meaning "Man in the Mirror." It's one of Jackson's most powerful vocals and accessible social statements. It also contains a fleeting glimpse of autobiography ("I'm starting with the man in the mirror/ I'm asking him to change his ways.") But by then, we knew better than to confuse the singer with the song. —With reporting by M.J. Stephey and Kristi Oloffson