Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Age of Michael Jackson

I suggest that the best way to "consume" this essay is to read it from top to bottom, pausing to play the inserted videos as you come across them. Trust me, the time will be worth it. You will be happy, and you will thank me later.

Michael Jackson was always the undisputed star of the Jackson 5, and everybody knew it, except, perhaps, for Michael. If he had known it, he might have emancipated himself from his abusive father, and taken his talent and run. But it was a different time then, the early 70's. That is for sure. Instead, he stayed with the family and, along with his brothers, recorded hit after hit after hit. I remember how much I loved his pure, perfect voice, and my favorite song at the time was, without a doubt, "I'll Be There". There has never been anything like it since.

Back then my brother and I, like any kid in the day, had several stuffed animals, but there was one key difference between his stuffed animals and mine. Mine had secret identities. My favorite animal was "Sam", a stuffed bear, who I named in such a way as to allow him/her "fluid gender expression". To my family, Sam was a boy. To me, Sam was a famous and glamorous female pop star, and she had the "voice" of Michael Jackson--remember Michael's pre-adolescent voice was high and beautiful. My brother and I used to play "Rock Band" in our room, using the various animals as band members, and we would use the window sill as a stage, since it came with a draw curtain (perfect!). I don't remember exactly how my Sam got the position of lead singer, but to this day I can usually get what I want if I want it bad enough. Those seeds were planted somewhere! Anyway, we would play our Jackson 5 albums, and pretend that our "band" was performing the music. Of course, the big hit of the show was always "I'll Be There".  Kids!

"Sam" today. Notice the remnants of blue eye shadow.
The music of the Jackson 5 is timeless, and Michael's voice only elevated what was already brilliant songwriting. Many people to this day consider the 80's the heyday of Michael Jackson, but not me. I feel his flame burned brightest in the 70's, while he was with the family group, and then shortly afterward when he teamed with Quincy Jones to record his fifth solo album, Off The Wall. I will even go out on a limb and say that Off The Wall was a stronger complete album than Thriller, but you may have your own opinion, which you are free to share in your own blogs! It just seems that on the former record, Michael accomplished the huge feat of differentiating himself from his family and the Jackson 5. It was a coming of age record, and it worked, much in the same way that the Control album would work for his sister Janet 7 years later.

In addition to the Quincy Jones production and Michael's own personal and musical development, there is another reason Off The Wall is notable. It came out in 1979, a truly magical year for pop music. I was 16 at the time, going on 17, so this was an important year of music in my own coming of age. Disco was in full bloom, and it was inescapable. There were those who hated it, but they were mostly the 60's rock/folk leftovers, people who hated the introduction of synthesizers into music and didn't get any form of dancing that didn't include nudity and pot (ironically, my favorite style of dancing currently!). For me, disco music signaled adulthood, freedom, and yes, sex. Say what you will about it, disco is sexy music. And in 1979, there was a lot of it that is still considered classic today. Michael Jackson was not the only star on the music charts, there was Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Chic, Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, and more. Rock music was still hanging on, with groups like The Knack, Styx, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and Elton John fighting it out with disco. Some, like Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, and Blondie, straddled the fence between rock and disco, but no matter where they landed, they were making memorable music. Even "soft music" had its stars in Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton John, Rickie Lee Jones, and Billy Joel. Take a look at just one of the single charts from that year and tell me that most of these artists and songs are not remembered, and played, even today:

TW LW Wks. Song-Artist
 2  3  8 We Are Family-Sister Sledge
 3  6  6 Ring My Bell-Anita Ward
 4  5 13 Just When I Needed You Most-Randy Van Warmer 
 5  1  9 Love You Inside And Out-Bee Gees 
 6  7 13 The Logical Song-Supertramp
 7  8  8 Chuck E's In Love-Rickie Lee Jones
 8 10  8 She Believes In Me-Kenny Rogers
 9  4 14 Reunited-Peaches & Herb 
10 19  6 Boogie Wonderland-Earth,Wind & Fire
11 28  4 Bad Girls-Donna Summer 
12 15  9 You Take My Breath Away-Rex Smith 
13 14 14 Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy-Bad Company 
14  9 18 Shake Your Body-Jacksons
15 12 14 Disco Nights-G.Q.
16 18  7 Minute By Minute-Doobie Brothers
17 13 12 Goodnight Tonight-Paul McCartney & Wings
18 20 12 Makin' It-David Naughton
19 24  8 I Want You To Want Me-Cheap Trick 
20 25  5 Shine A Little Love-Electric Light Orchestra

Michael hit number 1 in October that year with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" from Off The Wall, and though he may have seemed like just another disco artist on the charts, he stood out due to the fact that he had already been a star for nearly 10 years. Unlike artists who came out of disco (Donna Summer, The Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Anita Ward, etc.) or stars who moved into disco (The Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Cher, Diana Ross, the Jacksons), Michael, as a solo artist, changed disco. Off The Wall was an artist's statement of identity, not just a jump on the disco bandwagon, and more importantly, it was a signal of things to come--it moved disco forward. The album is not thought of today as a "disco album", but rather as a seminal R&B classic. Is it really hard to imagine the impact that this, and all the music of that year, had on my teenage self? A teenage self struggling with young adulthood, sexual feelings, and yes, homosexuality?

Disco, as Michael and so many others understood it, was about joy. It came from funk and soul music, and was created and embraced early on in East Coast clubs by the counterculture, gays, Latins, and African Americans. It was first heard by people who wanted to dance. It generally had a heavy syncopated bass line over a "four on the floor" beat, and the vocals were prominent and soaring. Love it or hate it, disco made you feel happy, and it made you dance. Michael's album even had a track called "Get on the Floor"! Just listen to the first 20 seconds of "Workin' Day and Night" and try to tell me it doesn't make you want to dance!

I miss this music. I miss disco.

Fairy Sketch by Elle-Cosplay
I am not a curmudgeon who laments the lost music of my youth while disparaging today's artists and styles. Like many creative folk, I am engaged with current culture, and find myself stimulated by new things. I have more "new" music in my collection than old music, but the new music nourishes a different muse. Disco nourished the sprite in me: the lonely boy with wings who wanted to fly. The music of today provides a different function for me, no less valuable, but different, and I like to fly. The popular music of today is often either profoundly introspective or vapidly superficial, at least the music that is on the charts. Can you tell me with confidence that many of the artists on the charts today will be remembered, revered, and referenced 30 years from now? Well, perhaps Loude, because she is so young and so interesting, and perhaps Beyonce and Gaga, and maybe Katy Perry, but that is a toss up.

There are interesting things happening in music today, however, and a lot of it is due to an artist named Pharrell Williams. An innovative producer and writer, he has worked behind the scenes for years with many artists, crafting peppy singles and forward thinking music. As a solo artist though, he recently made his biggest mark, dominating the charts with the infectious hit "Happy", an unlikely single from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack. If you have not heard this song, then you are living underground, as it has inspired people to dance all around the world. Literally. I mean, EVERYBODY wants to dance to this song. Why is this? It is not that complicated lyrically or musically, but it does make you feel happy and make you want to dance. Sound like a type of music we have been discussing so far? Here is a video of people all over the world dancing to this song:

I could imaging "Happy" being on the singles charts in 1979. It has that similar joyful energy of many of the singles of that day, and by the reaction of millions worldwide, this type of music is missed and desired. I don't know about you, but I get the sense that people are tired of twerking, grinding, slow-jamming, and the other versions of dancing that are basically f**king on the dance floor. Disco was sexy, but it was not sex. The magic of disco is that it captured the ecstasy of falling in love in music. Today's music more often than not eschews romance for the act, throwing out joy and feeling along the way. The joy has to be added back in, so to speak. (You did not need to down a handful of drugs to dance to disco music.)

So what does Pharrell have to do with Michael Jackson? Well, a lot. Pharrell's hit singles, like the aforementioned "Happy", as well as the infectious "Get Lucky" (Daft Punk) and the funk-influenced "Blurred Lines" (Robin Thicke), have fueled a change in music today--leaning it toward the type of joyful, danceable, and yes, sexy pop that Michael Jackson crafted so well on Off The Wall. And this full circle phenomenon is no better illustrated than with the newest release from, you guessed it, Michael Jackson! In the album Xscape, there are newly produced, previously unreleased songs from the vaults that go all the way back to the 70's. The lead single, "Love Never Felt So Good", was written in 1983 by Jackson and Paul Anka, no stranger to hit making himself. But the current producers wisely chose to dig back to Off The Wall and use drum riffs from "Workin' Day and Night" in the song. The best news? The song is fantastic. And it makes you want to dance. And it takes me back to a time when Michael Jackson was a beacon of promise and change as he carried music forward with his supernatural talent. Leave it to a Michael Jackson song to take us back to where we want to be--I can't imagine any other artist who could better initiate both a look backward while looking forward. Feels like 1979, the age of Michael Jackson. And just like back then, he has everybody dancing all over again.

Here is the official music video. This could have been terrible, but it is the opposite. Now get up and dance!


  1. GREAT MUSIC LIST! it seems to come in spurts now; back when I was young, EVERY song was a hit. now it's few and far between. and that "happy" song IS pretty damn catchy! smooches, tony! :)

    1. The music industry WAS different back then, for sure. It was not unusual for one song to be number 1 for WEEKS. Things change, but not always for the better! Smooches back at ya!

    2. Hi Tony. This is one great post, my man!
      We have been praising disco for years because of its simplicity, feel good happy sound, and of course for its dancing. We lived it, loved it and danced our heads off!! Still do.
      Your anthology of that particular time period for music is spot on as far as I am concerned and I appreciate how you tied it all together and 'connected the dots' for this rather naive student of music history.
      MJ's new single is very catchy and reminiscent of the late 70's music. He was a genius at what he did.

      Thanks for this Tony. Now, what e-magazine/regular magazine would want this? Let me see......

    3. Ha--I should make you my literary agent, Jim! You are determined to get me published--not a bad thing! But I do like being a secret for a select few...thanks for commenting, as usual!

  2. As always you write the most thoughtful posts. I particularly liked hearing about Sam.

  3. Hi,

    Enjoyed your article May I post this on my MJ blog All Things Michael?

    1. Hi Vallieegirl,

      Thank you for your comment, I am glad you enjoyed the post. You can re-post if you wish! I hope others enjoy it! -Tony

    2. Hey Tony....what did I tell you!

    3. You were right! If you write it, they will come! :-)