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.