Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Scott on Michael Jackson: The Miles Davis of Pop

[Guest Blogger Scott with a piece on Michael Jackson.]

Prince’s “Darling Nikki” is technically a much better song than Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”; it’s funkier, sexier and more daring; however, when the average person first hears “Dirty Diana” their response is “Hey, that’s a pretty sexy sounding song” whereas when people first hear “Darling Nikki” they tend to… I don’t know… form the PMRC. Herein lies the key to Michael Jackson’s success and, in part, much of his genius: his accessibility.

Chuck Klosterman once wrote in an essay where he defended the merits of “Wal-Mart” country artists like Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks that, in comparison to more ‘prestigious’, they were less talented but they understood more people. While I by no means think that Michael Jackson was lacking in talent, the second part of that statement, the understanding more people, holds true.

Over the last week or so I have been listening to The Essential Michael Jackson pretty much non-stop and I have come to the conclusion that despite his eccentricities, despite the occasionally trite, middle-of-the road fluff, he crafted, quite simply, some of the most brilliant pop-music ever. Lyrically, he wasn’t really anything special, but his gifts as a composer and arranger resulted in some of the most irresistibly catchy songs ever to hit the radio. As dated as the production on “The Way You Make Me Feel” might seem (very 1980s) I’ve had the song stuck in my head for a solid two weeks now.

When it comes to Michael Jackson, I’m reminded of something that I heard in my Jazz Appreciation class The professor once told us that the reason for Miles Davis’ greatness, his importance to Jazz Music, was less about his abilities as a trumpet player but more about his ability to have his pulse on current trends within Jazz music. On his most important albums, Davis would surround himself with the hottest players and arrangers of the day in order to create something that was always fresh and modern yet, at the end of the day, it still sounded like Miles Davis.

This is what Michael Jackson was best at; he didn’t merely follow trends, he found ways to make those trends work FOR him and, as a result, made records that would outlast the very trends that inspired them. For example, Off The Wall is basically a disco album and Dangerous is, according to my research, often considered the most successful ‘New Jack Swing’ album of all time. Disco and New Jack Swing both went the way of the dodo, but the songs off of those albums endure. Why? Because Michael Jackson understands more people or, rather, has a greater understanding of what more people like, he makes this music more accessible than it normally would be. Because, at the end of the day, we don’t think of “Rock With You” as a disco song, we think of it as a Michael Jackson song.

My favorite example of this is “Beat It.” Some of you may have heard that Jackson’s inspiration for this song was the Knack’s “My Charona”, most likely a connection that you would not make independently but the similarities become clear once pointed out. Basically, what Jackson heard in “My Charona” was a rock song with a danceable drum and bass part. He found an arrangement that worked for him, one that drew upon his skills as an R & B and Pop artist but still allowed the song to maintain its rock edge, brought in Eddie Van Halen to play one of his nastiest most insane guitar solos and the result was a song that broke down barriers in pop music; this wasn’t Michael Jackson doing a rock song, it was a Michael Jackson song that rocked. Rock fans liked it because it had an awesome guitar part and Eddie Van Halen, New Wave fans liked it because it was catchy, R&B fans liked it because you could dance to it, he simply found a way to make this song appeal to the broadest range of people. That’s what my favorite artist do: they are innovative and inventive but still accessible. Sure, Jackson’s music wasn’t the most challenging or intellectually stimulating music but, if you want to be challenged, go listen to Radiohead. However, if you want to get a mixed crowd dancing at party, put on “Billie Jean.”

(For the record, by no means was that a dig at Radiohead. I think I will go listen to some now)

1 comment:

Angela said...

As a avid Jackson fan, this is one of the aspects of his music that I couldn't quite figure out. Yes I love Prince, but sometimes Prince is too deep for me, musically and lyrically. Now don't me wrong: the school of Prince makes me do homework and get down in there! But, I generally don't like headaches after thinking about music for too long. sometimes, just to get in far too deep. (and never come out)

But, I for the life of me can't figure how one man, MJ, can write and mix many songs that sound so complex in terms of prduction (2BAD, Tabloid Junkie, They don't care about us, Morphine) without the ability to read or write noets So how can a 40 yr musical veteran be such a musicology "babe" and still be able to arrange a little ditty for the masses?

Of course, not all releases where successes, and on some songs, MJ did take an independent direction. But for the most part, he knew the anatomy of a hit, and was rewarded well for it. Some might call that selling your soul. With a talent like Jackson's, I prefer to say that with every song & every performance, Michel jackson gave his away.