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Social Studies

Back to the Wall

By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/22/2005

During the whole trial ruckus I was continually amazed by how woefully ignorant most commentators, reporters, and, yes, music critics were about Michael Jackson’s career. It’s like they took a cue from the story of African-Americans in those old history textbooks: We were slaves, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died for our sins, everything’s cool, the end. Michael Jackson and his brothers dressed like circus folk and made “ABC,” Michael Jackson made Thriller, Michael Jackson made a bunch of crappy albums, the end.

Hell, it’s like the post-Jackson 5 unit the Jacksons never existed. And, maaaaan, I could write a whole column just on them. C’mon now, their first two albums, The Jacksons and Goin’ Places, were Gamble/Huff productions that easily measure up alongside the O’Jays’ and Teddy Pendergrass’ output from the same period. And both Destiny and Triumph are better albums than Thriller. Yeah, I said it. Quietly, I could write a couple of pages waxing poetic on the later Jackson 5 stuff, such as Skywriter and Get It Together or, as my boy calls it, “the albums when all of them were the same height.”

Now that the hoopla will start moving toward the next spectacle, I’m thinking that Jackson can make some music for the real music fans who know about that fleeting “Dancing Machine” J5 moment, as well as the just-plain Jacksons’ period. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll sell Neverland, get an apartment in New York, and make music that reminds people how he became Michael Jackson.

First of all, let’s separate the room. There are two types of Michael Jackson fans. There are the pure and true, who know that Off the Wall is the best album he ever made, and then there are the folks that think Thriller is. I think both camps could potentially be in a good place now that America has sort of written him off.

Relative musical anonymity could be especially good news for the Off the Wall camp. I’ve always believed that its success is what led to the complete left turn Jackson’s music took with Thriller. At its core, Off the Wall was a dance album envisioned by a man who knew his way around the club. I mean, Quincy Jones produced both albums, so I have to believe that Jackson’s experiences and taste were the X factor. If someone plays “Rock With You” or “Get on the Floor” right now, it’s impossible not to start tapping your foot. Off the Wall was about grooving, and it doesn’t stop at the production. Jackson’s voice is warmer and more hypnotic than it ever was afterward. It’s like he’s lulling you into this nice midtempo club groove. I’m convinced that if Off the Wall wasn’t so big Jackson would have continued in that direction and become Maxwell.

If Jackson doesn’t have access to the type of resources he’s had to make big, bombastic spectacle music, and if Jackson can move back enough and let someone else take care of the production, I think we could get something like that again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he worked with a producer who embraced a lo-fi, stripped-down instrumental feel? I would kill to have Jazzy Jeff or James Poyser or, hell, Maxwell produce an entire Michael Jackson album. Imagine an entire Michael Jackson album that sounded like “Somethin’, Somethin.’”

But let’s say you like Thriller. In many ways, I think it’s easier to make a good album in that direction. First of all, Michael Jackson has done it a couple of times since. If you like the slick, overproduced, aggressively pop Michael Jackson, you know, in your heart, that both Bad and Dangerous accomplish those goals better than Thriller. Look, I know it’s sacrilege to say that Thriller is overrated, but, pound for pound, it is. Yes, “Billie Jean” is the truth, “Thriller” is big and bombastic in the best way, “Human Nature” actually sounds like it should be on Off the Wall, and “The Lady in My Life” is real pretty, but the rest is fairly disposable, and, no, I’m not forgetting about “Beat It.” I think “Smooth Criminal,” “Remember the Time,” “Dirty Diana,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Man in the Mirror” are better than half the stuff on Thriller.

If that’s what you like, I got two words: the Neptunes. You know, the closest I’ve ever come to a fistfight in my own house was when I said in a room full of guests that Justin Timberlake’s Justified was the best Michael Jackson album I’d heard in 10 years, and that’s because of their production. The whole Neptunes sound is just a hip-hop-informed evolution of the aggressive, overproduced sonic dissonance that Jackson has been enamored of since he met Eddie Van Halen. Imagine an entire Michael Jackson album that sounded like “Lapdance.”

Regardless of what direction Jackson goes, I believe we have a real opportunity to experience a Frank Sinatra-level second act. Hopefully, it doesn’t get too big, though, or we’ll be doing this again in 10 years.

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