Debating Michael Jackson As An Artist
A friend and I had a conversation that I suspect is typical in the wake of Michael Jackson’s sudden death â€“ an assessment of MJ as an artist.
him: Frankly, I don’t think he was such a great artist. Good showman, very good pop tunes, but formulaic.
me: Well he could really dance!
him: Yes, but he’s being compared to Fred Astaire. C’mon!!
me: I think I could make the case. Fred Astaire was an amazing dancer, but was he a choreographer — did he invent any dance steps?
him: I think Fred Astaire worked with a choreographer named Hermes Pan
me: Sounds like a character from a Shakespearean comedy
him: It’s almost certainly a made-up name. Son of Peter.
me: Fred Astaire himself praised Michael Jackson’s dancing. The robotic dancing, locking and popping, the Smooth Criminal lean, the Moonwalk: Michael Jackson invented a whole way of moving, or at least popularized it. Is there any other pop star who danced as well? Britney Spears moved a lot, so did Madonna, but did they have the dance steps?
him: Not comparable to MJ
me: And anyway, pop by definition is formulaic
me: I’m not saying he wasn’t good. I’m saying, musically he was nothing to write home about
me: Well, who is?
him: I mean I think he was a good dancer and so-so musician
me: Who would be worthy of the adulation, in your view?
him: Beatles, Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, lots of Jazz artists
me: Frank Sinatra?
him: Sinatra was a terrific musician and actor, actor in the sense that great musical performers must also act when they sing. (That’s an observation from “Master Class” by Terrence McNally)
me: And you don’t think mj was a great musical performer?
him: Not really. One-dimensional
me: I think the period from 1979 to 1991 he was innovative and influential and hot as a songwriter, producer, dancer and singer. There was also his child prodigy period, but those weren’t his songs, they were Motown hits. Perhaps your view is colored by the 20 years after his peak
him: Did he write any of his songs?
him: Which ones?
me: Well, of the ten songs on his debut solo album, â€œOff The Wall,â€ he wrote two (â€œDon’t Stop Till You Get Enoughâ€ and â€œWorkin’ Day and Nightâ€) and collaborated on a third (â€œGet On The Floorâ€). He is credited as the sole songwriter on three of the nine songs for â€œThrillerâ€, which is being called the biggest selling album of all time. The songs he wrote for the album include “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, â€œBeat Itâ€ and “Billie Jeanâ€ (but not â€œThriller.â€ That was by Ron Temperton.) He collaborated with Paul McCartney on a fourth song, “The Girl Is Mind.” But I’ve read that, although he didn’t write all the melodies, he wrote the lyrics and collaborated on the arrangements for all the tracks on the album; I’m not sure this is true. He wrote all but two of the songs on â€œBadâ€ and most of the songs on â€œDangerousâ€ too.
him: Well then I have a little more appreciation for him.
me: Besides that, he was an indisputable innovator in music videos. (One good example is his clever 1991 video, Black and White, with Macaulay Culkin and a multiracial and multimorphing cast — even the longer, weirder version that ends with MJ dancing on top of a car and in a puddle and turning into a panther.) And he broke the color barrier on MTV.
him: I’m sorry – breaking in to MTV a couple of years after MTV started is hardly an accomplishment. MTV was not an establishment institution set up by elitists to preserve social strata. It was a cynical commercial corporate entity set up to exploit the convergence of cable TV and pop music. It was open to anyone who could bring in the bucks. The Thriller video was much more expensive and elaborate than anything that preceded it. He delivered the goods, and MTV accepted the delivery.
me: It’s simply a fact: Before MJ, there were no black faces on MTV.
And there was no more thorough crossover artist.
him: What about Ray Charles?
The debate continued â€“ and continues.
Was Michael Jackson the Mozart of our time, or the sign of a bankrupt culture?
Ray Connolly: At his peak, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when working with the legendary producer Quincy Jones on the magical albums Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, Jackson was inspirational. And I mean that in the truest sense of that word. He literally inspired the following generation of rock stars to consider their music as part of a whole theatrical experience of dance, acting and costume.
Christopher Hart: He was a ‘genius’, claims Justin Timberlake.
Really? What, like Shakespeare and Michelangelo? With the best will in the world, I don’t think anything in Michael Jackson’s back catalogue can quite compare with Hamlet or the Sistine Chapel…Enough of this delusional postmortem hype, please. A handful of Jackson’s tunes will last as long as people love pop music – that’s no mean achievement – and at his peak he could dance like Fred Astaire. But he was also a deeply flawed individual who lived a life of consistent and cowardly denial and evasion.
Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker: He was the Jackie Robinson of MTV and, in many ways, the Google of pop dancing. No male pop star who wants to dance on stage has any chance of avoiding Jackson’s choreography, not that many of them try. (See Usher, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, any boy band.) Two albums he made with Quincy Jonesâ€”â€œOff The Wallâ€ (my favorite), and â€œThrillerâ€â€”redefined so many different kinds of music. Why couldn’t a pop song also contain an enormous, barn-burning guitar solo? Why couldn’t a dance hit verge on Afropop? Why did a creamy ballad about human nature have to sound like humans were singing it? Pop has in no way exhausted all the questions he and Quincy posed.
Michael Jackson’s death sparks Florida bus brawl (Reuters)
A fight broke out on a Florida bus when news of Michael Jackson’s death sparked debate over whether he should be remembered as a great musical talent, and one passenger was charged with assault.
The bus was moving through the city of North Lauderdale on Thursday when passenger James Kiernan received a text message about Jackson’s death on his cell phone, and he read it aloud on the bus, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department said.
The unidentified bus driver opined that “Michael Jackson should have been in jail long ago,” prompting Kiernan, 60, to retort that “the world just lost a great musical talent,” the police report said.
It said the last remark enraged another passenger, Henry Wideman, who started a swearing match with Kiernan, then pulled out a knife and chased Kiernan down the aisle with it.
The driver called his dispatcher and pulled over near a convenience store to wait for sheriff’s deputies, who arrested Wideman, 54. He remained in jail on Friday on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.