Upon hearing of Michael Jackson’s death yesterday, one of the first things that popped into my head was: “Have you seen my childhood?” I say that as naïvely and as free from cynicism as I can. At its best, pop music both clarifies and enriches receptive souls’ personal experience. And the touchtone moments in pop culture exist as a simple purification of every individual’s life experience. Speaking personally, the death of Michael Jackson will forever denote the moment I left my 20s behind; it comes literally days before I turn 30. It’s a perfect parallel, in a sense. The arbitrary acknowledgement of my wonder years’ passing will be forever intertwined with the death of the man who was never allowed a proper childhood, and who subsequently raged with all his creative might against the onset of adulthood. Jackson’s music still serves as a crucible for our various compromises and self-imposed psychological barriers. It sounds carefree, but it’s impossible to listen to without assessing its creator’s hidden torment. Even the smoothest, catchiest, most disco-tastic singles in MJ’s back catalog are a little obsessed. (Don’t stop ’til you get enough? Got me working day and night?) Which is my own tortured way of saying it sounded great then, and it sounds great now. In the mid-’80s, I always thought of Michael Jackson and Prince as a perfect yin and yang of pop and R&B, the former representing good and the latter evil—or close to it. In retrospect, both were never more compelling (and downright terrifying) than when they confounded that syllogism. (Prince’s “God” is as chillingly direct as Jackson’s “In the Closet” is hauntingly abstruse.) Time’s cruel joke: Now that I’m old enough to appreciate Jackson’s artistic persona on its deeper levels, I only want back the simplicity of his showmanship. I want back the days when it wasn’t the Eagles sitting atop the all-time list of best-selling albums. I want the Michael Jackson who somehow nailed flawless, effortless quadruple turns easing down the road in The Wiz while wearing size 37 scarecrow slippers. I want him back. Eric Henderson
Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia page was updated within moments of the announcement of the glittery gloved one’s passing. Twitter crashed harder than it did during the peak of last week’s protests in Iran. Two of the major broadcast television networks suspended their primetime schedule to air specials about Jackson, while radio stations across the country cued up songs from his extensive catalogue of hits. One woman called in to New York’s Power 105 in tears, repeating, “I loved Michael Jackson! I loved that man!” over and over, before threatening to throw herself in front of a car. You can hear his influence in the music of today’s younger pop, R&B, and hip-hop stars, and his own songs, whether it’s “Human Nature” or “Remember the Time,” rarely sound conspicuous when sandwiched between the top radio hits of 2009. If the self-proclaimed and globally ordained King of Pop’s career was in decline—or even over—at the time of his death, you’d never know it. To celebrate the very reason he mattered, still matters, and always will, we’ve compiled a list of our 10 favorite Michael Jackson singles and videos (in chronological order). Enjoy. Sal Cinquemani
When Marvin Gaye recorded a version of Leon Ware’s plaintive long-distance love song, “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” little could he have known it would just a few years later sound like comforting “I’ll always love you” sentiments from beyond the grave. The gap was far longer in Jackson’s case (he recorded it in 1972, one of his earliest singles without the Jackson 5), but again the song now aches with the foreknowledge of something lost:
After a glorious fake-out prelude of tentative, mumbling first-date banter, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones absolutely blow the roof off. Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” is declaration as explosive imperative, pop music’s ultimate side one, track one:
Prevailing wisdom dictates that “Rock with You” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” should be cited as Jacko’s best disco-era tracks, but “Off the Wall” comes pretty damn close. And this one lyric seems to capture the often bizarre icon’s too-short life: “Life ain’t so bad at all if you live it off the wall.”
The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It” wasn’t the first time Michael Jackson blew his socio-musical aspirations out into Cinerama dimensions, but this stately slice of disco represents maybe his first successful stab at synthesizing social consciousness and million-dollar production values. It’s the secular forerunner of “Man in the Mirror”:
To quote Ed Gonzalez from our 100 Greatest Music Videos list: How fucking cool was Michael Jackson that he could light up a sidewalk with the tap of his foot in “Billie Jean”?