Every Tuesday after putting the paper to bed, around 9-ish, I’d go to The Torch, a now-defunct club on West 7th Street, and dee-jay. Well, I didn’t actually dee-jay. I just picked songs from the internet on a laptop connected to the house sound system. Most of the time, the place was dead. I played what amused me. But every once in a while, some people would show up, forcing me to play what I thought would amuse them. I discovered that indie-rock worked best during the early hours, when people were just getting warmed up and getting small-talk out of the way. As the night wore on, however, and many more cocktails had been poured and imbibed, convos had been all but exhausted, and people started getting, uh, loose, I had to play some dance music, specifically old-school R&B and soul. Of all of the artists I played –– James Brown, Heatwave, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rick James –– only one could be counted on to, no matter what, fill the dancefloor: Michael Jackson.

The singles off Michael’s first two albums, Off the Wall and Thriller, are just a step faster, a bit brighter, and a whole lot funkier than anything else. They’re. Just. Better. A lot of the credit for the sound, naturally, goes to the producer, Quincy Jones. But without Michael’s, well, Michael-ness –– his range and the idiosyncratic, powerful way in which he way sang –– the songs wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as they do. He had a voice that could bite through the thick, bouncy bass lines without overpowering them and a melodramatic croon as silky as the crisp synths beneath it. There is no dance R&B –– actually, no dance music period –– before or since that even compares.


Yes, he was a case of arrested development, and, yes, he was probably a pedophile (though, I’m obligated to say, he was never convicted of any crime). But Michael –– we’re all on a first-name basis with him –– was a brilliant artist and the Elvis of Generation X, the last generation bound to old media: In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, access to new music was limited to MTV and a couple of radio stations, that’s it. When a big song came out, you could trust that everyone –– everyone –– was listening to it. And what everyone was listening to back then was Michael. No one had more big songs than he did: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “P.Y.T.,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean,” “Rock With You,” “She’s Out of My Life,” “Thriller,” the list goes on. Coupled with his dance moves and legacy as an entertainer, and his white glove, Michael was his own popular culture.

What then to make of his life and career? In some ways, I tend to think of his music as its own entity, a sui generis creation of which the man was only a vehicle. In other ways, though, I can’t, per the old adage, separate the poet from the poem. Was Michael responsible for any sort of enormous shift in popular music? Not at all. He was simply doing what R&B performers before him had been doing for decades: Getting people’s butts moving. Did he change concerts? Not really. Big spectacles were de rigueur in the ‘80s (Madonna, U2, Springsteen). What did he do then? Simple: He got people’s butts moving –– in a way that no one else did, could, or probably ever will.


  1. What some of my peers had to say about Jacko’s death.

    From the desk of Eric Griffey:
    MJ was my first celebrity icon. I once went dressed as MJ for Halloween when I was eight years old: blackface, red pleather jacket, sparkle glove, and a curly wig. I was obsessed. I had the trading cards (still do, actually), the stickers, the posters, the official sun glasses with his translucent image on the lenses, and a whole lot more. If someone made MJ shwag, I owned it. The “Thriller” video was a huge event in my old neighborhood. On the night of its premiere on MTV, all of us ‘hood rats gathered around the tube and watched, our mouths agape. Ironically, I used to cut out porno pictures form my Dad’s stash and hide them in my MJ sticker album (still do, actually).

    I lost interest after the Bad album. But even when he became a cartoon image of his former self and was accused of all manner of unsavory lewdness, I went into full-on denial. To quote Dave Chapelle: “He didn’t touch those kids! He made ‘Thriller’!” Such was my admiration.

    From Jimmy Fowler:
    When I was about five or six, one of my favorite movies, which I caught on late night TV, was Ben, the sucky sequel to the actually creepy Willard. Both of them were about young men with unnatural affections for rodents. As absolutely ridiculous as it sounds, though, Ben came across as a semi-credible love story thanks to the fucking amazing title track by Michael Jackson. I bugged my parents to get me a 45 of the song, and I played that sucker endlessly for what felt like a year. It’s still a great love song, and it’s on the permanent soundtrack of some of my earliest memories.

    From Dan McGraw:
    I think your view of MJ very much depends upon your age (as with everything). I am the same age as him, so when the Jackson 5 burst on the scene in 1970, I was 10 and not all that interested in the Top-40 music of the time. Oh, we’d see them on Ed Sullivan and they had a cartoon show on Saturday mornings but nothing that big to my age group. By the mid ‘70s, FM rock radio was starting to heat up, and if you were a cool teenager, you had abandoned Top-40 AM radio and moved to the album-oriented programming of FM. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, punk and New Wave hit, and my age group went largely with that. So the Jacksons and their bellbottoms were sort of a nostalgia bit by then.

    Thriller came out in 1982, and with MTV in its infancy, it did have an impact. However, we all got tired of bars stopping everything down for the 20-minute short movie. And, once again, being in college in those days, I had no interest in the King of Pop and his marketing to high schoolers. After that, I no longer paid attention to him, aside from the occasional pedophile accusations and his personal appearance changes.

    I think the pop icon status was conferred to him by those who were younger than me when Thriller came out. I personally saw him as a bit player, one who had a gimmick and ran with it. But maybe that was because I saw the gimmick of the J5, saw the gimmick of the glove, and saw the gimmick of the Moon Walk.

    From Jeff Prince:
    I remember the first time I read the lyrics to all the songs on the Thriller album. The music was so good that it surprised me when I realized how vapid the lyrics were. His vocals, the production, the music, and the vibe were so great that he could have been singing any lyrics.