Michael Jackson dead at 50

There aren’t any pop artists I’ve grown attached to over the years. There have always been songs I’ve liked for a time, sometimes intensely, but then they fade. I really like revisiting them after 10 years or so. Certain songs bring back memories of my childhood or when I was a teen, or going through college. So it is with Michael Jackson. I heard about his passing yesterday, and I felt a bit sad, but not overwrought. He’s been a fixture in my life, a bit hard to avoid. When I was a teen his music was wildly popular and was on the radio all the time. His music and performance art were significant and innovative in pop culture. When he “exploded on the scene” in the early 1980s he really stood on his own. There was no one else like him. I was really struck by his music videos. They were innovative and captured my attention. Some would say later that he made the music video an art form worth paying attention to. There were music videos around before he really made it big, but they were amateurish.

Before all that I didn’t really know about him, but I’d heard him, as part of the Jackson 5. A couple of their songs were big favorites of mine when I was a kid in the 1970s, “ABC”, and “I Want You Back.” Michael was the child lead singer of the group. I liked this music because it was simple and catchy, and Michael’s voice sounded like a child’s, which I could relate to instantly.

I watched The Wiz when it came on TV. It was a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz in the mold of Motown. Michael Jackson was in it along with Diana Ross. Only thing was I barely noticed him under the costume and make-up. He played the scarecrow.

As a young teen I remember I liked Shake Your Body by The Jacksons (the Jackson brothers changed their name in 1975) off of their Destiny album, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” from Michael’s solo album Off The Wall, and Human Nature from Thriller. Around this time I started hearing about Michael Jackson a bit as a solo artist. He didn’t leave an indelible imprint on my imagination until he produced his Beat It, Billie Jean, and Thriller music videos, all from his Thriller album. They had an epic quality. They were like small movies. Of these three the only one I really liked as a song was “Billie Jean.”

As with anyone who’s famous, Weird Al Yankovic had to make parodies of his music (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery): “Eat It” (Beat It), and “Fat” (“Bad”).

These are some other videos and songs that Michael Jackson (or “The Jacksons”) made that were favorites of mine:

“Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons from their Triumph album – This is going to sound crass, but President Obama could’ve used this song as an anthem for his campaign. Seriously.

From Michael’s album Bad“Another Part of Me,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”

“Black or White” from his album Dangerous – Out of all the music videos he made this is my favorite. It’s brimming with creativity. I loved the line, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” The end of it features a technology that was very new at the time, computer morphing. This video was produced in 1991.

“You Rock My World” from his album Invincible – This was the latest one I really liked. It just feels so easy to dance to. The video has some great creative elements in it. What’s funny is Chris Tucker keeps dropping names of older Michael Jackson songs, and phrases he’s used. I love watching Tucker dance in it. I don’t know for sure but this may have been the last time Marlon Brando appeared on film before he died.

I had never bought one of Jackson’s albums before, but I felt like getting Invincible when this song came out in 2001. I listened to the album at the store and was disappointed. “You Rock My World” was the only good song on it. A lot of albums had that problem back then. Maybe they still do?

It really seemed like Jackson’s career was winding down when his last album came out. I didn’t expect anything new out of him. I thought he would change focus and do something else with his life, and perhaps he did. I heard yesterday, though, that he was planning a European tour.

Artistic influences

Doing my research last night I learned that there have been many artists who’ve used samples of his music, or have done covers of his songs. I heard a few many years ago. A song called “Love Will Be Right Here” by Sisters With Voices used a sample of “Human Nature.” A rap called “O.P.P.” by Naughty by Nature used two samples from the Jackson 5: “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” A few artists I’ve seen who’ve done covers are Mariah Carey with “I’ll Be There.” The original was done by the Jackson 5. Alien Ant Farm did Smooth Criminal, an homage to all things Jackson. Here’s the original. A band simply named “V” did a cover of “Can You Feel It.”

A dance move that Jackson became known for when his career was exploding in the early 80s was the “moonwalk.” I think I heard recently that it used to be called “the back slide.” He popularized it, but he certainly didn’t invent it.

Edit 7-8-2009: I watched portions of the memorial service for Michael Jackson last night. It was pretty good. I really liked Jermaine Jackson’s rendition of “Smile” written by Charlie Chaplin. It was heartfelt. Brook Shields said it was Michael’s favorite song of all. Chaplin wrote this music for his 1936 movie Modern Times.

I’ve done a little research into “Smile”. It sounds like it originally didn’t have a name. Chaplin just used it in his movie without a credit. Lyrics were added to it in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and it was given the name “Smile.” It was obviously rearranged as well. It looks like Nat King Cole was the first to sing it. From what I’ve heard, Jermaine got the lyrics a bit mixed up, but that’s okay. They were in mourning, so who cares. Here’s Michael Jackson’s rendition of “Smile.”