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Tuesday 4 August 2009

Icons Series Reflecting on Michael Jackson Part 1: “Who’s Bad?”

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I cannot see any obvious connection between the circus culture I grew up around and my childhood/young teenage stint as a Michael Jackson fan. However, “The King of Pop” – as he was dubbed by actress and friend, Elizabeth Taylor - was always going to be liked by most circus people. Michael Jackson ticks the “good performer” criteria boxes with circus folk. He could dance, he could legitimately sing, he could play musical instruments and, above all else, he could put on a show! Furthermore, Jackson was a regular visitor to circuses and, according to one source, even toyed with the idea of buying Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Jackson was also born into showbusiness and worked in the industry in front of audiences in his childhood. Circus people could empathize with the hard work of continual practice he endured as a child.

They could also relate to the controversy and apparent persecution he suffered at the hands of the media. Nevertheless, my interest in Michael Jackson’s work happened completely outside my circus life. It occurred when I was at school when I had a bit of hiatus away from the culture I born into.

Michael Jackson versus Richard III

In 1988 I was given an unusual history homework assignment. We were studying Richard III, one of England’s most controversial monarchs, and the assignment required us to write two short essays giving opposing views on the Yorkist king. However, we had an especially cool history teacher at that time and being keen to rouse our young pre-pubescent minds he gave us an alternative option for our essay subject. Instead of writing two essays on Richard III we could write two opposing views on Michael Jackson. Unsurprisingly, as children are want to do, most of the class flew in the face of what our teacher thought was a popular option and wrote about the former Duke of Gloucester rather than the current King of Pop. I have always loved history and in years to come I would enjoy studying Richard III both as an actual historical figure and as the fictitious Machiavellian villain in Shakespeare’s tragedy. However, at the time I couldn’t resist writing about my then favourite pop star.

Looking back, the purpose of that assignment was not far from the task many journalists were given when Michael Jackson was confirmed dead on 25th June 2009. Michael Jackson now strikes a massive division between many people and sometimes in individuals. An unlikely controversial artist, Jackson’s work never came near the material of history’s best known music rebels. However, Michael Jackson’s controversy was not “rock star” controversy. It was outright weirdness that culminated in the type of media negativity that only a star with his type of following could really withstand.

But this was all to come for me. A year prior to the assignment Mr Jackson had officially become my first pop icon, my first living icon! I didn’t consciously dress like him, I have never been a dancer, singer and certainly was no musician, but I happily got swept up into his following with vigour.

Bad: The Movie

“I'd fuck Mike up. You know, Mike... Mike don't weigh but a buck-oh-five, you know. I bust that ass on Mike”, so said Eddie Murphy in his live 1987 show, Raw, when he compared upsetting the singer with annoying the then famous “hard-man” actor, Mr T. Michael Jackson may have been far more commercially successful than Mr T and even Eddie Murphy combined, but he was, as has been said on many occasion, “Music’s unlikeliest bad boy”. And yet “Bad” was an amazingly successful album, single, music video and world Pepsi sponsored tour. It was the album that snared me and my contemporaries at school, even when the parodies about Michael Jackson and his many eccentricities were making regular news. Relatively ignorant of Jackson’s lengthy time as the child lead singer of a clean-cut boy band, The Jackson 5, we were totally sold on the idea of a slightly built, boyish looking male dancer who sang in a high tenor declaring he was “Bad”.

The 18 minute music video for Bad, directed by Martin Scorsese, found its way into my school shortly before I bought the Bad album. Our private viewing of the film was cut short half way through by a teacher, but I was totally hooked. After buying the album I imagined the film was the beginning of a full-on feature, each of the tracks being in sequence as part of a musical that finished with “Smooth Criminal”. A year later this would be partially realised for me with the feature film, “Moonwalker”.

Time for a child, even in your early teens, seems to move very slowly. I remember somewhere between the Bad album and the theatrical release of Moonwalker being told by an older friend of mine that Michael Jackson was “old music” now. Although I was initially impressed by the popularity of the star, it had never been in my nature to really care much about what others thought and I never was particularly perturbed by the concept of something being unfashionable. By this stage I had saved up enough to buy the “Thriller” album and my birthday presents had included Jackson’s autobiography, “Moonwalk”, and the partisan documentary video, “Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues”. Mum and Dad also both bought me the Thriller video around the same time. The video contained the full 15 minute short film and its much lengthier “Making of” documentary.

‘Cause this is Horror!

There was always a type of forgiven naivety about the work of Michael Jackson just as many would forgive his apparent naivety in life. I wonder whether I was the only movie geek sad enough to point out that the Rod Temperton penned Thriller was, in fact, a song about horror films and not thriller films. Likewise, “Leave Me Alone” may have had a music video that focused on the media hype, rumours and speculation that surrounded the megastar, but according to Jackson’s autobiography it was really a song about a relationship between the singer and a girlfriend, and how they struggled against outside interference. The theme would be repeated in the provocatively titled “In the Closet” on his next album.

None of Jackson’s albums could really have been called concept works. The movie Moonwalker didn’t really resemble a movie and yet I recall many non-Michael Jackson fans agreeing that it was highly enjoyable. I, of course, loved it to bits. I got the calendar, the book of the film and when it came out on video I rushed to get my copy. The film is divided up into several loosely connected and sometimes unconnected acts, half of which are really just music videos. Their only consistent theme appears to be the celebration of Michael Jackson. It was well produced with brilliant special effects and Jackson’s performances were outstanding, particularly the film’s centrepiece, “Smooth Criminal”, but it would be difficult for the dispassionate viewer not to see the film as perhaps cinema’s greatest marriage of blatant product advertising and self-indulgent fantasy, surpassing even the movies of The Beetles, Cliff Richard, Cradle of Filth and even Elvis in this respect. If you ever want an example of how great style and ego can carry a product with virtually no substance then Moonwalker is your boy. Having said that, seeing the success of musicals that were based purely on and around the recordings of classic pop music, such as Moulin Rouge and Mama Mia, perhaps Moonwalker was ahead of its time!

Michael Jackson’s videos are rightfully considered to be some of the best, if not the best in the world. He pioneered, he invented, he pushed boundaries and he left a legacy of visual work that continues to entertain. There was some experimental work in the video “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”, which came off his coming-of-age album with Quincy Jones, “Off the Wall” and the collaboration with his brothers on “Can You Feel it?”, but it was with Thriller that he really changed the music television world... quite literally. Of course, Thriller is now famous for being the bestselling album of all time, but that wasn’t its only historical achievement. Those who had worked with Jackson on the video for the single, “Billie Jean”, released just prior to Thriller would have an idea of the ambitions the singer was striving for in his film-work, but few could have predicted just how extraordinary Thriller the music video would be. John Landis, the legendary comedy horror director who made American Werewolf in London, was hired to make Thriller and the bar for music’s future had just been raised to the stars. MTV has a lot to thank Michael Jackson for.

The video for Smooth Criminal is perhaps one of my two favourite moments for the star. It involves so many interesting features. There is the mass dance choreography that had become a trademark of Michael Jackson, the anti-gravity lean special effect that inspired the onstage device he invented and patented, and an incredible atmosphere throughout the video. Being a fan of the early gangster movies even then, I seem to see movements reminiscent of the mannerisms of actors like James Cagney, particularly the parts where Jackson and his fellow dancers hunch their shoulders and prowl across the screen. Perhaps it is my imagination, but this mannerism appears to be carried over into the way Jackson pronounced extra lyrics added to Smooth Criminal for Moonwalker; they seem to have a New York wise guy accent to them.

These new lyrics were supposedly included to make more sense of the story i.e. Jackson’s character is looking for more clues in Club 30s, the haunted venue where the music video takes place. They do nothing of the sort. The song’s general lyrics appear to be a discussion on the scene of a crime where a girl called Annie has been attacked in her own apartment. This has no connection with Moonwalker’s child-friendly mini-film sequence whatsoever of which Smooth Criminal is the centrepiece. There isn’t even a character called Annie in the film. I recall the book of the movie quoting the repetitive chorus that mentions Annie showing Jackson’s character dancing with one of the Club 30s’ gangster molls, as if to make its own sense of the song in the context of the story. It would appear that no one really knew what it was all about.

The Smooth Criminal costume is also Jackson at his most eccentric. He wears an armband, as if to mourn someone, and tapes his fingertips. I recall watching the making of the film, where a member of the crew queried Jackson about these peculiar additions. Who had died? Had he hurt his fingers? Apparently they were character enhancements – well of course they were! However, I am sure there are plenty who have since speculated and come up with all sorts of bizarre conclusions.

Comic-Book Hero?

At the beginning of the Michael Jackson autobiography, Moonwalk, the singer opens with his admiration of the great storytellers. This skill never was one of Michael Jackson’s strong points. Visually and emotionally he could come up with fantastic aesthetic treats. He knew how to work a crowd better than anyone in the music business and he could translate this excellently to film plus he could certainly write some interesting songs, but as far as creating an original piece of narrative is concerned, it is pretty clear that this was not his forte. Of course, this hasn’t stopped many from trying to make sense out of his work. This includes Jackson himself as demonstrated by the odd direction Smooth Criminal was sent in the Moonwalker film.

I recall buying a Michael Jackson magazine that featured a serialized comic strip based on Michael Jackson’s songs. Having just surfed the ‘net to verify these appearances I find that although Jackson was very much a keen comic-book fan, his general appearances in comics were surprisingly limited. “Mad Magazine” pops up with their obvious play on the song, Bad. This is something the British adult satirical puppet show, “Spitting Image”, did around the same time. However, before either of these the British satirical magazine for children, “Oink”, pipped them both to the post, but no one seems to have picked up on that yet.

The fact that Jackson almost bought Marvel Comics is mentioned on several comic fan websites and there are a few other vague mentions, including the disastrous 3-D comic book adaptation of Moonwalker, which helped bankrupt Blackthorne Publishing. Prior to this there was the comic strip adaptation of the Michael Jackson Disney theme park 3-D film, Captain EO. However, the Michael Jackson song influenced comic strips seem to be lost in the ether for now. It’s a shame. I recall, even then, to be impressed by the imagination of the writer(s). There was an adaptation of Billie Jean, where the concept of an obsessed and delusional female fan turns to darker places with Jackson’s character, perhaps prophetically, being accused rape. The story ended on a cliff-hanger with the police arresting the Michael character. I seem to recall there also being an adaptation of “Heartbreak Hotel” aka “This Place Hotel”, a song penned by Jackson when he was still officially working with his brothers.

Lapsed Fan

By the time the “Dangerous” album came out I had well and truly moved on from Michael Jackson. I watched the full length world premier of his video of Black or White and for a time I recall my sixth form year looking forward to their daily dosage of “Jam” shown routinely by the TV station that had made its name off the King of Pop’s music promos: MTV.

However, as I said before, time just seems so much slower when you are a kid. I had gone from Michael Jackson to Prince, something I never thought I would do when I was at the height of my Michael Jackson hero-worship. Incidentally Prince, a contender for Jackson’s crown in so many different ways, including outright weirdness, was also a comic-book fan. It seemed like an eternity had elapsed between the release of Bad in 1987 and Dangerous in 1991. Times had changed for me. My taste in music had experienced a massive transformation when I was 15.

First it was Alice Cooper, another one of music’s showman, who in the 1980s had dipped his toe into mainstream pop and commercialism in order to survive the onslaught of hair metal, bubble metal and other lite-rock trends that had made the medium “safe” in the same way that Cliff Richard had done with Elvis and The Monkees did with The Beetles. Alice Cooper has never been worried about “selling out”. In the early part of the 21st century the keen golfer and concerned parent is equally at home producing an aggressive hard rock album with dark themes and political sensibility as he is in appearing on an ad for the corporate world. The same cannot really be said for UK and US godfathers of punk Jonny Rotten who has advertised butter and Iggy Pop who advertised insurance.
I was first introduced to Alice Cooper on an episode I recorded of the Muppet Show. And despite his nonchalant and regular forays into the mainstream there is little doubt he deserves his well-earned place in the history of rock and roll. His influence was massive in the late ’60s through to the ‘70s with the horrific theatrics he brought to his stage shows and the teenage angst he brought to the lyrics of his music. I was reintroduced to Alice Cooper on the release of his early ‘90s album, Hey Stoopid. It was an album at the end of an era with squealing ‘80s guitars and machismo, but it struck a chord with me. His back catalogue introduced me to the true beauty of Alice Cooper’s work and I was a rock man from then on. Anything that provoked was now good in my books.

There is a stage most teenagers go through when the old becomes cool again. I guess it is a pretence to being intellectual that you honour music of yesteryear as if you were admiring classic literature. It is often paralleled with a type of “second childhood” chic or irony, where teenagers like showing that it is cool to like characters like Winnie the Pooh.

I was very aware of all this when I was teenager. The trouble was I didn’t despise old music at all. When I was into Michael Jackson I was soon listening to all his Motown stuff from the ‘70s. Alice Cooper led me right back to the grittier stuff that had made him famous. So when I re-discovered ‘70s punk rock it was like an epiphany for me and I really shifted away from the mainstream. The dance music I had taken to be the soundtrack muzak of the times was thoroughly rejected. I had never been overly keen on the whole manufactured bands of the 1980s and I recall having a particular disdain for Bros, now I loathed them with all with a passion. Punk was the ultimate flipside to popular music for me and I have loved it to this day. Having sought out many of the most influential bands of this brief period in rock history, I longed for a version to appear for my generation. Then my brand-trained eyes saw it in the barely encircled “A” being sported on the tops of American cheerleaders! That symbol meant one thing to me: anarchy. And anarchy was, of course, the philosophy of the punks. I had discovered Nirvana.

I wasn’t into the grunge scene on the whole. In fact, I have never really desired to be a part of any scene. The artists I had discovered post-Michael Jackson seemed to be fierce individualists and it was this quality that I admired in them. Before my drastic change in direction I recall proudly telling my music teacher, when asked, that Michael Jackson was my favourite musician. Then I heard the same name uttered by individually at least half the other students there. Suddenly it all didn’t seem so special. I am not one for change for change’s sake and I only buck a system that requires bucking, but there is something about homogeny that turns me off at a very deep level. These other artists I discovered dared to be different and although they might start whole new movements, they rarely liked this part of their legacy. Many seem to forget that although Nirvana had become very successful, they were being outsold by their vastly inferior rivals, Pearl Jam, before the death of Kurt Cobain. Afterwards was a different matter, but it is arguable that grunge had died by then anyway.

Put it quite simply Michael Jackson was very much part of the establishment in my mind. He was, by comparison to his contemporaries, very safe. Thriller was no dark provocative track like you would find among the works of Christian Death, Sisters of Mercy, Incubus Succubus or other music that specialized in Gothic themes. It was more a tribute to the fun of watching horror movies and scaring each other.

There are some surprisingly adult themes among his songs, but they often passed the approval of your average parent, even in the early 1980s. Outside the sex allegations that would plague him from 1993 onwards, Jackson’s controversy only stemmed from being eccentric. His work barely flirted with actual controversy. He wore a codpiece in a time long after Blackie Lawless’s overtly sexual and pseudo-violent use of this clothing accessory and Jackson grabbed his crotch three decades after the days of “Elvis the Pelvis”. The odd single use of a swearword were barely noticed in songs like Dirty Diana and Scream, and despite the odd attempt by the press to make something of it, the general public were not shocked. For example, “In the Closet” is typically Michael Jackson in that it was determinedly about a heterosexual relationship. “Earth Song” might have been about self and collective recrimination for crimes against the planet, but it smacked of a type of trendy hypocritical eco-peachiness that was already become quite stale at the time.

The closest Jackson would ever come to a protest song was with “They Don’t Care About Us”, which really did cause a lot of controversy. The issue about this song was the inclusion of the words “Jew me, sue me” and “Kick me, kyke me”, which aroused concern by the Jewish community. It wasn’t difficult for anyone with a modicum of intelligence to figure out that the song was about discrimination, opposing hate crimes, rather than an anthem promoting anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop the criticism, which was enough to make Jackson issue numerous public apologies and to eventually alter the lyrics. It wasn’t the first time the singer felt he had to issue an explanation of sorts. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, Jackson felt he needed to give a disclaimer at the start of the music video for Thriller that explained the film was in no way intended to endorse the occult. No, Michael Jackson was never going to be a truly rock ‘n roll controversialist!

My mother certainly recalled my Michael Jackson years, when I played his albums in our car, with a great deal more fondness than any of my subsequently more alternative and subsequently louder tastes in music. I guess I considered Jackson as part of my childhood when I made the transition. His music did not speak to Generation X, the generation I had come in at the tail end of, the generation of sceptics and cynics. We had become accustomed to watching great stars and icons die before they reached middle age or torn down by a press that had worked so hard to build them up. However, the latter was about to happen to Jackson in a big way.

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