Monday, July 11, 2011

For Some Time

However needless it would be for me to admit that I paid little attention to the recent second anniversary, on June 25th, of Michael Jackson's death, I found myself watching some of his videos over the past weekend. The ones that attracted my attention the most were the first ones he made as a solo artist from the album, Off the Wall: "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You". The videos look cheaply made, since few people were putting much stock in music videos in 1979, two years before MTV was launched. But the music is still superb after thirty-plus years, thanks largely to the producer Quincy Jones, who found in the young Michael (he was 21 in 1979) an extremely accomplished and prepared performer.

But what struck me most in the videos was the appearance of Michael himself - a handsome young black man, confident in his looks and the effect of his looks. By the time he made the video for "You Are Not Alone" in 1995, in which he was shirtless for much of the time, his nose had been whittled away to a stub, his hair was straight and his skin was the color of snow.

Speculation abounds over what it was that drove Jackson to such lengths to efface every trace on his body of a black man. It's quite possible that he himself didn't know what it was. The earthquake that the success of Thriller album caused in his life was evidently overwhelming. It remains the biggest selling album in history, with somewhere between 65 and 110 million sold worldwide.

I remember listening to most of the songs from Thriller on the radio when they were new. I liked one song, "Human Nature" enough to go out and buy the single. It was not as popular as "Billie Jean", "Beat It", or "Thriller". Nobody bothered to make a video for the song, and I only heard Jackson sing it once in concert. It wasn't exactly Michael's singing that attracted me to it, but Quincy Jones' beautiful scoring of the song, especially the haunting downward spiralling synthesizer track at the beginning, at the chorus and at the end of the song, as it trails away to silence.

The only other song from the album that I liked was "The Lady in My Life". It was the 9th and last track on the album, and is, for me, the most unforgettable. Jones spoke years later of how Michael had to be left alone in the recording booth to come up with the vocals at the end of the song, in which he pours his heart out to a lady that never existed for him.

Having watched Michael Jackson throughout his life (he was born on August 29, 1958, three months after me), I felt somewhat personally invested in it, and was touched when he died because it reminded me of how old I myself was.

In 2007, a bonus track that was recorded for Thriller in 1982 but was omitted from the album was unearthed and released on the 25th anniversary of the album's first appearance. The bonus track, "For All Time" is almost as beautiful as "Human Nature" and "Lady in My Life". The truest test of any artist's worth is his survival of the evolutions and revolutions in popular taste. Certainly Michael Jackson deserves a modicum of such temporal immortality. I think the words of "For All Time" offer a fitting summation of his effect on popular music: "Maybe the walls will tumble. And the sun refuse to shine. When I say I love you, baby you gotta know that's for all time."

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