That’s it. After the media circus that was the Michael Jackson memorial, after hearing Al Sharpton try to tell Jackson’s kids that “there was nothin’ strange about yo daddy,” and after countless replays of poor Paris breaking down, I have had enough of the King of Pop to last a while.
But over the last week, something has been bugging me. I have gone on a musical pilgrimage, combing through his catalog and trying to figure out what happened after Thriller and Bad. Why wasn’t he as successful, and why did my interest in his music wane?
The easy, cynical, Peter King answer is, “He became a wacked-out pervert.” And while my enthusiasm for Michael Jackson the person quickly turned from hero to freak with each bizarre story, I always wondered if and when he would release another Thriller and regain the magic that seemed to envelop him during the early 1980s.
With few exceptions, that rarely happened. I already mentioned how Bad was simply a Xerox copy of Thriller, seemingly the same, but somewhat faded and inferior. But 1991’s Dangerous was just awful. Take away one of his few shining moments of the 90s, “Black or White,” and little is left. He tried too hard to catch up with the hip-hop scene, at times borrowing ideas from his sister, Janet. Most songs carried the heavy, staccato beat we heard in Janet’s Rhythm Nation 1814, and Michael was layered in the background, limited to his trademark yips and yelps. “Remember the Time,” while harmless, was yet another rewrite of his early hit “Rock With You,”; “Heal the World,” supposedly his favorite song, was a sappy rewrite of “We are the World” that somehow made the former song sound good.
Enter the child molestation allegations. His answer, the second disc to his 1995 HIStory compilation, was an angry swipe at the media and his accusers, but it followed the same formula: tired hip-hop beats mixed with sentimental ballads. “Scream,” his duet with Janet, was a definite highlight, but it suddenly seemed as if Michael needed Janet to sustain his career. “You Are Not Alone,” despite its worldwide success, sounded like a Celine Dion B-side. And “Have You Seen My Childhood?” was well, just creepy.
I must confess that before this week, I had not heard much of 2001’s Invincible apart from the single “You Rock My World.” But after reading Mike Heyliger’s retrospective on the album on Popdose, I decided to give it another chance. And there were a few surprises. I was encouraged by the return of melody to Michael’s songs. There were no classics, but the ballads were less sappy and the grooves more smooth. It was still mediocre, but listenable nonetheless.
Michael kept his star status with his off-stage antics, and his albums would have sold no matter what. But he didn’t seem to break new ground as he did with Off the Wall and Thriller, infusing rock ‘n’ roll into his music while keeping the nostalgia of 1970s R&B. Instead, his music just wasn’t likable anymore. He jumped on the hip-hop bandwagon (at least he didn’t do a rap album), making his music harder-edged while sacrificing the music. His ballads lacked muscle, which only magnified his feminine image. But we all know that 20 years from now, we’ll still be singing “Billie Jean” and not “Blood on the Dance Floor.”