The best music-biz reminiscence I’ve heard is how tastemaking national album-rock stations, when “Beat It” and its Eddie Van Halen guitar solo came out, slipped the record into their rotations amid the Zeppelin hits and “Dance the Night Away” and Steppenwolf and whatever…without naming the artist. After a week or so, they copped to playing Michael Jackson. Eddie was hot, Jacko was hot, they couldn’t not play it. It’s like next year, Shaq and LeBron will be on the same team — even if you hate basketball or think Shaq’s too old to win the big one, how can you not watch?
Michael Jackson was so good, whatever he touched turned to gold in the 1980s. He was generous about it, too, he spread himself around. Even his brother Jermaine — not always on the best of terms with his younger sib — got a big career boost when Michael sang on his minor hit “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming (Too Good to be True).”
His 1970s vocal performances were sublime. “I’ll Be There.” “ABC.” “I Want You Back.” Pillars of the soul canon. All-time great tracks, crackling with energy and talent. Lightning on vinyl.
Yet I find it hard to listen to Michael Jackson. Even before he allegedly drove over the cliff with Demerol (according to published media reports) this week, the magic from listening to classics like “I’ll Be There” had left the building, for me. It was hard to marvel anymore. In its place, sadness. Sadness for the mess Jacko made of himself, his life, and the kids who hung out with him.
To be fair, all of my idols have pretty much fallen, one by one. For instance, Ben Folds. I loved him. Perhaps no other musician since Michael Jackson and Thriller made me burn so white-hot with fan love: “Brick” was beautiful and powerful, showing us the pain of what he felt was a missed opportunity. He took us into his living room with “The Luckiest” and “Gracie,” beautiful twin songs about his kids. He backed that up with stories told onstage, selling to us what looked like genuine love for them.
I bought the whole package, from Ben Folds Five to the solo records. Then what did he do? Went and spread fecal material all over the whole thing by dumping the fam for his yoga instructor. He could have stopped there, but no: He told his own vitriolic side of the story in song on his next record.
My stomach has little tolerance for Ben Folds anymore. As a musician, he’s great. As a person, he’s a whiny twerp who flunked Dad-hood. Forget “Brick.” Forget “Gracie.” Shoulda kept it wrapped, bro. Shoulda thought of that before you decided your “thing” would be personal, introspective songs. If you’d taken the Deep Purple route or had created a lyrical mythology like Zeppelin or whomever, I’d probably still be cool with you. That, or you shoulda manned up like the rest of us when the home situation at times became less fun than you’d planned it to be. You, the senator seeing his Argentinian mistress, Jacko, you’re all in the same boat. Hard to take what you say seriously anymore.
People — musicians and not — are allowed to have personal crises. Happens all the time. Just don’t try and sell them to us. Or worse yet, make hypocritical songs like “Man In The Mirror,” whose beautiful message is just turned into so much melted plastic after reading court documents from the 2005 “The People of the State of California v. Michael Joseph Jackson” case.
Anyone who comes after me with “he was acquitted, you can’t count that, ” I will say that, as a former cops-and-courts reporter for a daily newspaper, the court system doesn’t go after someone of Jackson’s status without some sort of valid case. Prosecutors have budgets to meet, and the lame ones get voted off the island for poor performance. That’s how it works, despite what conspiracy theorists and prime-time courtroom TV dramas would have you believe. Sure, the state might go into a case thinking that it will win — and subsequently lose. Happens every day. That being said, there was some serious smoke surrounding that Neverland fire — just not enough to convict.
There are thousands of shades of gray between “totally innocent” and “led away to jail in cuffs to serve hard time.” But as music fans, the cool thing is, we get to judge for ourselves. Our “punishment” is personal boycotts of further investment in an artist’s works. We don’t have to listen to them. And when it comes to Michael Jackson, I don’t, much. I did put “ABC” and “I Want You Back” on my kids’ iPods — it beats the crap out of a lot of kid-centric music out there.
YouTube, thankfully, doesn’t require payment to play. So here, let’s revisit the back catalog, once again. I’ll leave you with “Man in the Mirror.” If Michael Jackson had listened to his own advice in the lyrics, posting this video would seem an uplifting tribute. Instead, it was the gateway to Neverland hijinks that some of us — rightfully — can never forgive. It’s not a beautiful song anymore, like it was 20 years ago when it came out. Watch it. Do you feel good vibes, or more like you’ve been rickrolled? Comment away.