On the final Thursday of June in 2009, I was coming home from an errand with my mother on what had been a very pleasant day. The phone rang and it was my father-calling for me specifically to tell me that one of the people he worked with told him that Michael Jackson had just passed away. Knowing the nature of the developmentally challenged people he worked with, I instantly went online to see if this news was accurate. Quite to my surprise actually, I discovered that neither Internet Explorer nor Google Chrome were at all accessible that day. When I tried to go to Wikipedia for more information,the site had crashed. So I turned on the TV news. Turns out millions of people the world over had heard the news of Michael’s passing and were attempting the same thing-causing the internet to buckle. Not only did this confirm what I’d heard from my father, but also how the passing of Michael Jackson ironically bought his massive fame back into focus. I just remember thinking about him the rest of that day. And its been four years since that day now. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this one individual who did actually connected me, for a short time, with the tastes of my own generation.
What can I even say about this man that hasn’t been said millions of times? Publicly his persona often continued to focus on the “Wacko Jacko” stereotype. And since his passing, conspiracy theories abound all over the internet (much like Elvis Presley before him) that he was still alive. In a way I can actually sympathize with such feelings. Michael Jackson’s death still seems very unbelievable. He wasn’t an elderly man who had his run. Neither was he a metaphorical shooting star who lived hard and died barely an adult. He had slowly declined into a depressing,drug addled life and passed on during a comeback attempt in middle age. In sports terminology it was rather liked being sacked in the middle of a football game. Didn’t seem right to have happened at all. One thing I’ll say on a personal level is that,following his death my friend Henrique even emphasized how easily even I’d succumb to the notion of Mike,as he and I often refer to him,as “the King Of Pop” and as an unreal,otherworldly talent. Even mentors such as Sammy Davis Jr. once said Mike was “not the man who lives across the street”. In all reality, Michael Jackson definitely had roots in very solid ground.
To me Michael Jackson represents crossing over, and more than just the name dropping music chart statistics often associated with his name: how many million copies Thriller sold and whatnot. Crossing over in the sense that Mike came from the lower middle working class environment of 1960’s Gary,Indiana-living in a house really too small for his four brothers,two sisters,steel mill crane operator father Joseph and mother Katherine, and ending up in six years time on Motown Records with his brothers as lead singer for the Jackson Five. By the time the Michael Jackson you see above you-a classy young man in a tuxedo launching into solo triumph with the help of Quincy Jones that some people mired up in his burgeoning fame might’ve somewhat forgotten about his intensely working class childhood. He also represented crossing over in a generational sense. During his years of fame as a precocious child star, he represented the culmination of the Motown dream: to elevate working class singers and musicians into musical stars who emphasized dignity and strength of character as well as talent. After the release of Thriller, African American music culture changed (with the advent of hip-hop) to strongly emphasizing there working class back rounds as opposed to presenting themselves on a higher culturally plain. In the end, it was the difference intent between the civil rights and black power movement that defined Mike’s twin legacies on that level.
As for Michael’s music, was it utterly and completely original when all was said and done? Actually, it was anything but. 1979’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til Your Get Enough” was heavily inspired by Mike’s love of Barry White’s 1978 album The Man from the previous year. “Billie Jean” was so heavily inspired by Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” that,during taping of We Are The World Michael asked Daryl Hall himself if he minded that he used his bass line from that as the inspiration for his mega hit. Musically Michael Jackson was firmly in the James Brown tradition of song construction-not even to mention Mike’s more obvious debt of gratitude to The Godfather Of Soul in his dancing. Like James, Mike built his own music upon that of his influence and recombined them in his own way to create something that was alternately unique and familiar at the same time. His music was very firmly rooted in black American music. Despite his sloganeering that his art was universal, his music was by and large uptempo funk/soul music with touches of jazz and pop at its core. It was his careful career building and star power that eventually made him “the King Of Pop”. He crossed over into that pop world with a music that,before him was actually fairly neglected. And it was hearing him that led me down the path to the love I now have for funk and soul myself. If Michael were alive today and I could meet him, I would thank him personally for drawing me into the rich tradition of soul and funk music from which he came and the tradition of which he carried on.