Michael Jacksons tabloid-ready life requires mention but it shouldnt sully his art. The late singer was a pop star of profound influence, reshaping R&B in a way that reverberates today. He crossed over in pop like no black artist had before him. Jacksons landmark 1982 album Thriller has to be the starting point. He made important and exciting soul music before it and he made some great recordings after it, but Thriller remains a monumental audio achievement. It was a zeitgeist record that permeated pop culture in America and beyond. By the numbers Thriller is a monster: Seven of its nine singles reached the Top 40, and the Recording Industry Association of America has its sales at 28 million in the US; worldwide sales are estimated in excess of 50 million copies.
Thriller was equally formidable for its multi-media pull. The recording was released in late 1982, roughly a year after the launch of MTV. The timing worked to its advantage. The glowing medium allowed the fleet-footed Jackson to break free of radios aural constraints. His videos were full of flash and magic and style, choreographed to the hilt and full of now-dated 1980s fashions that only Jackson could sell to a multi-cultural listenership. Silver gloves, jackets with extraneous zippers and moonwalking became de rigeur in the American schools that didnt ban them.
The album announced its arrival with the slinky, cool menace of Wanna Be Starting Something. On the radio, however, Thriller took a more leisurely approach: Its first charting single was The Girl Is Mine, a gentle duet with Paul McCartney. Paternity paranoia informed the slinky Billy Jean, while Thriller was a chilling primal and carnal epic of horror funk.
If it seemed like everything was downhill for Jackson after that album, its because Thriller took him so high. No album (other than anthologies) has sold as many copies. Jacksons next album, Bad (1987), was actually quite good. Subsequent singles like Smooth Criminal occasionally flitted with the cool funky menace that marked his best work. But like Prince, Jackson didnt seem to see hip-hop coming. He traded Jones for Teddy Rileys glossy new-jack production and was left rudderless through much of the 1990s and 00s. The hits continued to trickle out, but times had changed. Students didnt dress like Michael Jackson in 1995. There wasnt a new moonwalk.
If Thriller was Jacksons apex, the path to it was a steep ride along a deliberate path to stardom. Jackson was a round-faced, Afro-sporting kid of 11 when he sang I Want You Back with his siblings in the Jackson 5. He was a pint-size Sam Cook, able to eke just a touch of textured trill from his smooth voice to convey a sense of hurt that belied his years. While Thriller seemed to arrive with the shock and surprise of a zombie attack, Jackson actually sent a warning three years earlier. He was just 21 when it was released. The boyish voice was shed, though the inflections from his childhood work remained, only more seasoned. On ballads Jackson could sing satin smooth, but he maintained a sharp-edged snarl on the tougher stuff as well as an achy timbre in the sad songs, punctuated by colorful chirps, oohs, hoots, ahs and has.
Off the Wall initiated an amazing 10-year period for Jackson. His output was limited to just three albums between 1979 and 1989, a studied pace that confirms the meticulous construction of the recordings.
That period also might have set up Jacksons undoing. When you sell 40 million copies of an album, when youre on MTV around the clock, when you sing a charity song to aid starving children in Africa (We Are the World) that tops the charts in more than a dozen countries, you no longer control the light switch. Jackson sang about wanting to be left alone, but he always seemed to find the light. Unfortunately toward the end of his life his non-musical doings put him in the glow more often than the music did. He seemed poised for a comeback: A generation of fresh-faced rockers like Fall Out Boy, to name just one band, applied his lessons in fusing rock and soul. Contemporary R&B singers black and white were raised on his work; some, like Justin Timberlake, owe Jackson everything.
Jackson was weeks away from a return to the stage that would have either revived or buried his career. Fifty sold-out concerts were scheduled for a London arena in hopes of mending the troubled singers finances and his artistic reputation. His death Thursday was a tragic end to an eccentric life full of erratic actions. It was also a life full of irresistible pop music.