King Nothing

To say that far too much has been made out of news related to Michael Jackson's passing, his legacy, and the circus that will surely be his memorial service later this week is a given. Like so many other things in Jackson's life, there's a spectacle that surrounds it, an air of mystery and grandeur that today's media simply cannot resist.

It's almost as if all the other over-covered celebrity deaths up to this point have simply been practice rounds for this one, life-shattering, all-encompassing, metaphor-that-can-be-applied-to-anything-and-everything news story. We've reached the point now where news outlets are doing stories about the coverage itself -- asking it it's too much, too intrusive, or if we'll ever really know the truth behind what happened.
Here's the truth:
An internationally beloved entertainer passed away. Period.
Michael Jackson was not a musician. He was not a songwriter. And although he became renowned for it during the heyday of his career, he did not start out as a dancer.

Michael Jackson started out as the voice of the Jackson Five. He was the obvious focal point, but the group was always intended to be just that -- a group. They danced in unison, they sang in multi-part harmonies. There was no glove, no moonwalk, no monkey, no allegations, no bad jokes, nose jobs or any of that crap.
There were just these songs on the radio -- lyrics and music reaching into people’s hearts and embracing them.
So when he appeared to the vast majority of the world alone in the fedora and sparkling glove on Network TV as part of the 25 Years of Motown broadcast and did the moonwalk people's jaws literally hit the floor. Not only because it was a dance move so many of us had never seen before, but it was friggin Michael Jackson -- the tiny kid with the afro and the big nose who sang "ABC" and "Rockin' Robin" back in the day, all grown up, looking completely different and floating across the stage like his feet weren't even touching it.

Before that, the Jackson 5 were just another Bubblegum Pop act. Five kids in funky clothes doing many of the same choreographed danced moves you could see from the Temptations. In a lot of ways they were literally a string of #1 hits away from being a novelty act. Most people figured that once the kids voice broke it would pretty much be over, just like every other boy band before (or after) them.
If Motown records had gotten their way -- Michael Jackson would have
simply been the successor to Stevie Wonder's childhood success.
It says a lot that the tide began to really turn for Jackson in 1975 when he left Motown after a heated legal battle for CBS Records -- which enabled him to start working with Quincy Jones on a record called Off The Wall. The album was a commercial success that gave Jackson his first number one hit in almost 10 years (it's also still my personal favorite thing he's done).

It also gave Jackson (and Jones) an unheard of amount of clout in the industry at the time. It's not something they talk about much considering the amount of worldwide fame he found soon after -- but it was after the success of Off the Wall and before Thriller ever started recording that Jackson secured the highest royalty rate of any artist ever -- 37% of all wholesale profits from album sales.
Doesn’t sound like much, but considering what artists were getting before (and what they get now) it's a ridiculous number.
It's hard to imagine the same seemingly fragile, self-obsessed shadow figure we've come to know as being such a bulldog in the boardroom -- but there are a number of things that Michael Jackson accomplished during his Thriller heyday that literally changed the entire landscape of how contract artists were seen, handled and paid by record companies.

Much like they are today -- album sales were going into the crapper in 1982. Record companies had been riding a long line of success, and had grown comfortable with doing things their way. Hit singles were the dominant product, so albums were designed to deliver them. So much so that producers oftentimes restricted the number of singles they'd include on a given release. If an artist had 2 or 3 projected hits in their repertoire, it wasn't unusual at all for producers to "hold one back" and keep it for another album in an effort to build an act's library. As a result, you'd love a song you heard on the radio and end up with an LP that had only that one good song on it. The rest would be filler, covers of other group’s hits, and various retreads of the projected "hit."

Which is why when Thriller hit the shelves literally overflowing with songs designed to be radio play singles (7 of the 9 songs on the album charted in the Billboard top 10) -- record companies had to sit up and take notice. Thriller was an album you had to have. As a result, BAD was an album you had to have. Rhythm Nation was an album you pretty much had to have. By equal rights, if you were on a different side of the track from all the fans and hoopla, Purple Rain was an album you had to have. Master of Puppets was an album you had to have.
In other words, whether he realized it or not -- Michael Jackson wasn't just popular, his work had a certain importance.
For a period of time, all he touched turned to gold. Everything he did was emulated, re-interpreted, or directly contrasted by almost every other working artist out at the time.

But like all things in this life -- time has a way of affecting things. Kids grew up. Music evolved and changed. At one time, Michael Jackson was in one way or another the catalyst pushing that growth. But after a certain amount of time and success, when he'd finally achieved the creative control, acceptance, and success he'd seemingly been seeking -- he stopped growing.

The dance moves became a signature. The look became a uniform. The man who had re-invented himself (perhaps in an effort to escape the limits and pressures put on him when he was a child) for some reason froze the clock, and did everything he could to remain 26 years old. Forget the allegations and the wacky marriages and all the rest for a second. Somewhere after the success of BAD, Michael Jackson musically stopped being the most influential innovator in pop music, and decided to simply sit upon his throne and be the King of Pop forever.
As a result, as important as Jackson's work had been -- his overall sense of relevance began to fade.
His scandals and eccentricities became more intriguing than his work, which by then had largely stagnated and began to repeat itself. The ripples and effects of his efforts could be clearly traced in the pop artists that began to eclipse him at that point (as well as the ones who owe so much of their stylistic success to him in the current musical landscape) -- but beyond the occasional collaboration with his sister or paparazzi scandal the King of Pop became little more than an afterthought.

As we've clearly all seen in the weeks after his death -- the amount of adoration for Michael Jackson and his work was immense, and in many ways never faded. But I think we've also discovered that it was a love of distance. Wrapped in good feelings, cradled by the reflections of his influence in the work of others, and yet in so many ways kept in a faded scrapbook of memories. Shelved in a corner of your heart saved for the people and things you've never stopped loving, but long lost an immediate passion for.
Which is why I think statements like this are particularly telling:
Based on preliminary sales numbers from Nielsen SoundScan, the entire top nine positions on Billboard’s Top Pop Catalog Albums chart will house Jackson-related titles when the tally is released in the early morning on Wednesday (July 1). Nielsen SoundScan’s sales tracking week ended at the close of business on Sunday (June 28) night.
No doubt, it’s an incredible feat for an artist to pull off posthumously. But when you think about it a little more the fact that people are buying these albums up in droves carries a very specific message -- that as much as people love Michael Jackson's work, as much as they hold him in a place of importance in their hearts, they kinda had to buy all these albums --
..Because they didn't own them anymore.
There's no shame in anyone -- whether it be the heaviest of metal heads, or the oldest of grandparents digging into their collections and finding those old records and listening to them all again. In overplaying them to the point of annoyance as a way to deal with the loss of a figure of importance.

But what does it say when you dig through those shelves, or scroll through your ipod directories only to realize that you don't have any of it? That you used to own them all -- but you sort of outgrew it. After all the scandals and accusations and 25-odd years since it was virtually the most important thing you had in your life that you had sorta ..moved on?
Importance never fades. Influence and effect can easily be traced.
Relevance however, is a flame that needs fuel to remain bright.
Distance and time can be hard on relationships. It weakens the foundations that you build everything upon. Passion needs immediacy, and when all you have are voices from the past, memories of the things that once touched your heart -- it invites a reliance on days gone by. This is what we had, this is how important it was, how real and intense things used to be when you were here -- when I could hold you, touch you, sing along with you on the radio and pretend to walk backwards across the carpet in my living room.

We all desire importance in one form or another. We ache to feel desired and needed. But life moves pretty fast. It can be difficult to remain relevant. Hard to be present in peoples hearts and minds --
Especially when what you once had seems so far away from where you are now.
At one time and place, millions of people were in the same place with Michael Jackson. They danced with him, listened to his words, held him close to their hearts. But as time went by and his career began to pull him in different directions, the connection began to fade. Then all these things happened, these events and scandals and behaviors that started making us think that he wasn't the guy we all thought we knew. That maybe it's not the worst thing in the world if we don't return every call, buy every album, or skip the tunes when they come up on the playlist.

And then perhaps you encounter someone new. Someone younger, more vibrant, more ..there. Someone that shares qualities that you loved in Michael, but perhaps speak more to what you know now. They have albums and videos out that you hear everywhere you go. You can see them live in concert. You can share that electricity with them. You don’t have to travel into the past. You don't have to wait for the new tour, or keep buying the re-releases of those old discs. You can live in that energy right now.
It happens all the time.
One of my closest and dearest friends growing up lives some 20 miles away from me. Yet we struggle these days to maintain and continue to grow our friendship. It seems difficult for both of us to find times to get together. To find environments that connect us anymore. We've grown up, gotten married, gotten divorced, had kids, moved in different directions with our career paths and lives. The bond between us will never change, and the importance of his influence on my life can never be diminished --
..yet here we are. Hardly relevant to each other at all anymore, it would seem.
Do I want it to be that way? Absolutely not -- I hate what we've become. I miss what we were. Despite the fact that it's as much (or perhaps even more) my fault as anyone else’s that two good friends have become more like pleasant memories to each other -- I miss the good times, the laughter, and the simple comfort that came from having a buddy to hang out with. Someone to talk to. Someone who would listen, laugh, and understand.

The problem comes in maintaining that connection. In continually bridging that gap in a way where it's an active, living thing anchored in the person you are now -- and not just some trip down memory lane.
Are all those old Michael Jackson songs still just as good as they used to be?
Of course they are.
But are you the same person you were when you first fell in love with them? For that matter -- has Michael Jackson grown with you, found ways to continually touch your heart even as its needs evolved and matured?
..Probably not.
Importance is built. It's often told through the reflections of yourself that are seen in others. The inside jokes you carry on years after the fact. The stories you tell over and over. Importance is a state of being. It's a place you reach sometimes without even realizing it.

Relevance, on the other hand must be cultivated. Cared for. It can't be faked, assumed to be fine, or built on the artifices of the past. It's emotional food to the people who crave your immediacy. Who need your comfort, your strength, and your smile to survive.
Michael Jackson's relevance as an artist faded years ago.
He existed in our minds most recently as the media spectacle. The accused abuser. The punchline. A reality that unfortunately overshadowed his true gifts and talents -- exasperated by his own tendencies as an eccentric recluse. He gave us so little to douse those flames of doubt that they became the only facets of his life many of us found relevant anymore.
Will the world miss him?
..As I see it, we already have been for years.

[Listening to: Jill Scott - "Crown Royale" ]


Heff said…
Nice post. I really can't add anything to that.
wigsf said…
and Moonwalker is a thoroughly enjoyable video game.
Adam said…
Good post. But I would argue about the 'not a musician and not a songwriter' bit. MJ most certainly was a songwriter. He wrote 4 of the songs on Thriller and (supposedly) played drums on 'Beat It." I doubt he did a lot of drum-playing in his day, but I found that little bit of trivia about 'Beat It' rather interesting.

...that said, the Jackson 5 were basically no different than NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys.
JerseySjov said…
i dont own any of his albums, i dont have any of this songs on my ipod; he's not the kind of music that i listen to regularly. on the other hand- if he comes up on the radio or at a party, i'm one of the first to exclaim "i LOVE this song!" and sing along, and i do own quite a bit of justin timberlake and usher's releases, two performers who are obviously influenced by mj only more keyed to my demographic.
Anonymous said…
Well said.
Frank said…
Wow, that's deep. I never made much of a connection with MJ because the first allegations of child sex abuse came out when I was only 7, so the weird, pseudo-pedophile MJ is the only MJ I've ever known. Still, having read this, plus having seen the reactions many of my older friends had after his death, I can understand how he touched so many people (figuratively speaking) back in the day.
Hex said…
Heff -- thanks bro.

WIGSF -- It's odd that as we memorialize and in some ways cement the image we will say farewell to Michael Jackson in, many of the things he did are being discarded. Not just the scandals, but the less than amazing career choices he made (I will say that during his "innovator" period, Jackson did take a lot of risks -- which I do respect him for, even though a lot of them fell flat).

I mean, it's not like even in this time of mourning and re-infatuation with his work that anyone's planning to re-release Captain Eo, you know?

Adam -- he's got a smattering of songwriting credits, but the history of his work (imho) shows him to be more of a master arranger and collaborator. He respected the musicians and songwriters that he worked with, but he often took his cues from them, and not the other way around.

He had a thing for the sound of guitar. Perhaps it was his R&B background, but even in his most cloying pop-song moments, he always had a place for the instrument in his music.

That being said -- IN my opinion he was the polar opposite of a musician like Prince (who's musicianship occasionally gets in the way of his songwriting, btw ), but equally as talented -- albeit in a different way.

It is interesting about the drum part, though.

He was a hell of a choreographer though. Once he reached a point of confidence with fusing styles of dance, what he did with it was pretty damn impressive.

Jersey -- I have a few Jackson discs, and I love a bunch of those old Jackson 5 grooves -- but I'm largely with you on relating to the more modern versions of him better than the man himself.

Anon -- thanks.

Frank -- time has an effect. One of the threads that's popped up in the wake of his death is this whole "Michael vs. Elvis -- who was the better entertainer?" idea. It's sort of a ridiculous question -- because you can't really compare their impact without taking into account the environments their success happened in, and the time in which they thrived.

Which I guess is my whole point with this story -- Great music endures, but as time moves on it's the influence, the importance of it we hear more often than the immediate relevance.
alicia banks said…

superb article!

i adored mj the black boy and hated the demented white man/woman he became...

see more:
alicia banks said…
see new article on mj:

Now, the clairvoyant Halperin has penned a book that chronicles the closeted homosexual life that Michael lived: "Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson". The very same fans who brazenly ignore Michael’s dated list of legal woes from a harem of boy accusers, his endless and monstrous facial surgeries, and his exclusively white purchased children, will also dismiss this expertly researched book.