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Social Studies

Reflecting on the Man in the Mirror

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/1/2009

The real tribute to Michael Jackson's effect on the world over the past few days is not the outpouring of grief so much as it is how surprised people seem to be over how much they're grieving. We forgot how much we love Michael Jackson. Looking at television and the Internet, I was struck by the variety of people who just had to sit down somewhere when they heard the news. Over the last decade, distracted by headlines and court cases, we all forgot just how much the man had become entwined into the fabric of our lives.

Let's be real; Michael Jackson's main role on the American cultural landscape for the past 15 years has just been as a punch line. We fixated on the hyperbolic chamber and the Elephant Man and giraffes and costumes and surgery and the monkey and out-of-court settlements and accusations and Blanket and finances and the Beatles catalog and the little boys, yes, and the little boys. All of that eclipsed the philanthropy and records broken and video innovations and sheer amount of good that the man did.

In response, some have implied, or outright stated, that maybe it would have been better if Jackson would have died 15 years ago so we would have missed what happened with him. I couldn't disagree more. The Michael Jackson story is American Myth, like George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. The crass excess, the kaleidoscope of insanity, the whole cautionary-tale quality of his life, all go hand in hand with the accolades. Like Elvis or Howard Hughes or Miles Davis, you have to take the light with the dark.

But when the smoke clears, whether you celebrate or curse Michael Jackson's name, you have to focus on his music. That's all that really matters. And, like religion, you need to figure out your own personal relationship with Michael Jackson's music. There's certainly a varied enough mix for you to choose from.

Right out the box, Jackson's work as a little boy with the Jackson Five is justifiably honored as classic material. "Maybe Tomorrow," "ABC," "I'll Be There" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" are certainly examples of why some people only listen to Michael Jackson's early work.

Having said that, if pressed, I believe his best period was between 1973 and 1980. Starting with "Dancing Machine" off of '73's Jackson Five album, Get It Together, through "You Can't Win" from The Wiz, and encompassing the first four Jacksons albums on Epic as well as Off The Wall--hell, that's sheer perfection. Hey, I'm an R&B dude and a large part of its appeal is its ability to make you groove. No one has ever made better dance music than Jackson and his brothers during this period. Of that music, "Rock With You" is the best dance song ever created. Period.

Still, I must admit, I spent a little time with Thriller last summer and I was surprised at just how well it has aged. Yes, Thriller is produced to a level of slickness that threatens to make the album bloodless, but track by track, Jackson's honey-drenched voice soars and transcends and more than makes up for the artifice. Away from the video and the glove and the moonwalk, "Billie Jean" is a pristine, yet, surprisingly dark, pop-music gem. And, I have to say, the only time I teared up a little the night he died was when I heard "Human Nature" playing on my kitchen radio.

Furthermore, it's amazing when you think about just how long he made good, solid pop music. Some people act like Michael Jackson stopped recording songs after Thriller but, seriously? "Smooth Criminal," "Remember the Time," "Man in the Mirror," "Another Part of Me," "Liberian Girl": There are plenty of so-called pop stars who haven't made songs as infectious in their entire careers. Put it this way, I question whether Rihanna, Ne-Yo, Usher, Justin Timberlake, or Chris Brown have ever shown the musical authority or authenticity of form that Jackson displays in "Butterflies." Beginning with "I Want You Back," Michael Jackson has contributed to a virtually unparalleled canon of popular music.

As the shock wears off, I'm happy to say, it looks like many people are focusing on that music. I've been flipping the stations and it's fascinating listening to the different Michaels. The oldies stations are playing Motown/Jackson Five stuff. The crossover/adult contemporary ones are playing Thriller/post-Thriller material. The R&B stations are playing Off The Wall, Jacksons music and, funnily enough, Jacksons' two true later R&B songs "Remember the Time" and "Butterflies." Regardless of our favorite, everyone is listening to the same man. I think it's safe to say that's the way he would have wanted us to remember him.

Michael Jackson. Philanthropist. Madman. Artist. Maverick. Visionary. Spectacle. Icon. Legend. Musician. Rest in peace, brother.

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