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Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The world was shocked yesterday by the sudden and unexpected death of music icon, Michael Jackson. There's a lot to say about Michael Jackson's life, his career, his impact on American and world culture and the subsequent effect of massive fame on a person's life.

As much as we loved Michael's solo career, we actually prefer his days as a member of The Jackson 5, the singing group he fronted and shared with four of his brothers, Jackie, Jermain, Marlon and Tito.

Michael was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Jackson 5 years before he was inducted as a solo artist, and The Jackson 5 was the first recording act in history to have their first four major label singles reach #1 on the pop music charts. Many of his younger fans today have no idea of the major success Michael enjoyed as a pop music star way before "Thriller" came along.

There's no way to say everything there is to say about an entertainment legend as large as Jackson's, instead we'll address some of the myths surrounding his life and career.

"Diana Ross discovered The Jackson 5". Actually it was Gladys Knight and others who were at the Apollo Theater that night in 1967 that The Jackson 5 won the amateur night contest, and who then persuaded Berry Gordy at Motown to take a look at them. Later Motown decided to attach Diana Ross's name as the "discoverer" in subsequent press releases, thinking that if they attached the Jackson's to a bigger name star, it would give the young singers more credibility with the public.

"Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star of all time." While no one can measure the amount of love and devotion anyone attachs to a particular celebrity, to say that Michael's singing career was "the greatest" is certainly open to debate. He still trails Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Mariah Carey in the number of #1 hits in the rock era, and almost certainly trails other singers if pre-rock era totals were included, i.e. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, etc. His world-wide fame and adulation was undeniable, yet many could argue that he was no more worshipped in his day than Elvis or others were also worshipped in every corner of the globe in their heyday. It's also interesting to note that while other members of rock royalty, (Elvis as "The King of Rock and Roll", Aretha as "The Queen of Soul"), were given their nicknames by others, Michael Jackson first named himself as "The King of Pop".

"Michael Jackson broke down the color barriers at MTV". Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the young commentators who are currently making this claim on the 24 hour news outlets weren't even born when MTV premiered, or at least weren't old enough to actually remember the era. To make this claim is to imply that MTV was racist, which is irresponsible and at best, unfair.
First there were other Black performers on MTV before Michael Jackson, mostly lesser known acts from England, such as Joan Armatrading and The Bus Boys, but also major American stars such as Tina Turner and Donna Summer.
But it's important to note, and this is what the young commentators don't remember, that when MTV premiered in 1981, no one was producing music videos. The concept of music videos was almost completely new, and in those early days, MTV scrambled hard to even find enough videos to play on the channel. But music videos had already become somewhat more popular in England, thus MTV's heavy reliance on (White) British music acts in those early broadcasting days. Almost no American acts, including Black performers, were producing music videos at that time. One early MTV executive recounts having to beg the major labels to spend the money to produce videos for their singers and groups.
But what we also understood about MTV in those first years was that they were promoting a particular format, just as every radio station in the world does today. Just as some radio stations play country, some play rock, some play light pop, some play rap, and some play classical, MTV's original format was rock, with a heavy leaning toward punk rock and its newly emerging offspring, New Wave. Quite simply, there just weren't a lot of Black rock, punk or New Wave acts in the early 1980's.
So what is the real truth? The success of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" videos certainly did pave the way for more Black acts on MTV, most notably Prince and Whitney Houston, but it was more a matter of timing and shifting currents in the overall culture which "opened the doors", it was not as if Michael Jackson single-handedly forced the change. As MTV's mainstream acceptance expanded, they decided themselves that they could expand their format to include a more mainstream, "Top 40" rotation, which did include many Black performers. And also, by the time that Jackson's "Thriller" came along, music itself was changing; the punk and New Wave trends were coming to an end, and popular music began to be dominated by a return to more mainstream pop hits, again which included most American Black acts.
So while we are not denying the massive popularity of Jackson's work, or his success on MTV, to say that there were "racist color barriers" at the MTV Network which had to be forced down is to simply misundertand that unique era.

Michael Jackson will be forever remembered as major talent and star, as he should be. Many will also be convinced forever that Jackson was a pedophile, whose escape from justice was unfairly aided by his celebrity. We will always think of Jackson mostly as a sad figure, in the "final days of Elvis" mode. In other words, our pop culture history is littered with people who become so big that they completely lose touch with reality, and are surrounded by a dangerous group of "enablers". Just as Elvis had a "doctor" who was willing to pump him full of drugs and as Elvis had a small army of people who depended on a working Elvis for their paychecks, so we will probably discover in the coming days that Jackson also had people around him who depended on him to keep working, even at the risk of his physical and mental health. As one MSNBC commentator said this morning, "When the real story of Michael Jackson begins to emerge, the events surrounding his final years and the contribution of his "entourage" to his decline will be tawdry."

But whatever the ultimate outcome of Jackson's legacy, we can rest assured that at any time we can put on a little "ABC", "Dancing Machine" or "PYT", and always feel a little better. Thank you, Michael!

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

It's amazing that some people still believe that fairy tale about Diana Ross discovering the J5. I wonder how people like Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor feel about Diana getting the undeserved credit.

As for MTV, they aren't getting a free pass from me because I don't recall ever seeing any black artists on MTV prior to Michael Jackson (the exception possibly being footage of Jimi Hendrix). If MTV showed any videos by Joan Armatrading and the Busboys prior to "Billie Jean", they must have been aired overnight and/or not been in heavy rotation because I sure don't remember them.

As for Donna Summer and Tina Turner, the first videos I ever saw by them on MTV were "She Works Hard For the Money" and "Let's Stay Together", respectively. I think these were the first videos they ever did and they were both post-"Billie Jean".

If it were true that MTV was promoting a particular format (rock, punk/new wave), I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. However, they were playing videos that didn't fit any of those genres:

We Don't Talk Anymore by Cliff Richard

Is It You by Lee Ritenour

Thank You For Being A Friend by Andrew Gold

Angel of the Morning by Juice Newton

MTV's failure to play black artists pre-"Billie Jean" looks even worse when one stops to consider the fact that several black performers were producing videos during that time. Below are just some of them:

Why Do Fools Fall In Love by Diana Ross

Give It To Me Baby and Super Freak by Rick James

Lady (You Bring Me Up) by The Commodores

Uptown by Prince

Mama Used To Say by Junior

Sweet Sensation by Stephanie Mills

Popcorn Love by New Edition

Let's Groove by EWF

If MTV found room on their playlist for artists like Juice Newton and Andrew Gold, I don't see a valid reason why they wouldn't play any of the black artists I listed above.

When one takes all this into account, I think that MTV deserves every bit of criticism they've gotten over the years regarding their pre-"Billie Jean" programming.