(expanded from a post I wrote on the AMS list-serv)
While I have ended up working on Romantic music, I nonetheless grew up in a pop cultural world that was very much shaped by Michael Jackson. "Thriller" was the first album I ever owned (an Easter present!), and, like many millions of people, some of my earliest memories of being excited about and inspired by music and performance are tied to Jackson. In ways both intriguing and disturbing, he changed the way pop music is conceived of, presented, packaged, and performed. He is the first artist I can think of who achieved a kind of transcendent global fame--the first (and maybe only) artist who is known basically everywhere in the world, from America to rural villages in Africa. His extreme physical virtuosity changed the way people dance, and inspired my generation at a level that continues to surprise me (since his death, I have talked to so many people who remember taping his 1983 live performance of "Billie Jean"--the world premiere of the Moonwalk--and watching it obsessively to try to learn his moves).
There are those who scoff at the presumption of we who refer to Jackson as an "artist." While it is of course not only acceptable but preferable that not everyone appreciate an artist or a style of music, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of dismissing a 40 year career that had so much far-reaching influence just because someone was weird (and Jackson was, undeniably, very, very weird), or made music we might not personally enjoy. The racial boundaries he broke--and the fact that he clearly meant so much to so many people, especially to so many African American people, as coverage of his death has demonstrated--seems in itself enough to make a case for at least acknowledging his important and iconic status in the world, even if his music has never been meaningful to some of us.
In the days since his death, I've encountered many people who dismiss Jackson's career with a disgusted remark about how he was a "child molester." Without defending unequivocally all of his actions, I do think it's important to point out for the record that not only was MJ never convicted of any of the child molestation charges, the prosecution's case against him (which took ten years for them to finally bring to court) was so flimsy and weak and pock-marked with self-serving B-list celebrity preening that the whole case inspired disgust in more than one journalist who covered the trial. Furthermore, it is disturbing to me that other artists who are perhaps less weird in their personal identity constructions are let much more off the hook in in the collective perception when they do terrible things (R. Kelly (who was also accused of sexually abusing children, and tried for child pornography), Led Zeppelin, and Motley Crüe's Vince Neil spring to mind, not to mention Beethoven, who drove his nephew to attempt suicide after getting his sister-in-law publicly branded a 'slut').
I've also encountered those in my own discipline who insist, with varying degrees of stridency, that Jackson's music is unimportant and uninteresting. First of all, I have no idea what it takes for music to become "important." If it influences a newly-global genre of musical performance at every possible level, I would call it "important," but many people would disagree with me, so I'll leave it to the experts (whoever they are) to define musical importance. Some of these same people grudgingly allow that MJ may have been important for his skills as a "businessman," or possibly as a dancer (if you can call that dancing (where are the tutus?)), but his music? Mindless beats and thoughtless wailing. I have been frankly very surprised at the hostile reaction of so many of my peers and colleagues when MJ's contribution to music history has of late been raised. This unexpected difference of opinions has forced me to really figure out what I personally find interesting in the "Music Itself With Capital Letters" of Michael Jackson (I am truly not sure why it's so important we talk about the Music Itself and not the myriad other fascinating, ground-breaking, inspiring things about what that music did in our culture or how that music broke all kinds of boundaries or how that music was danced to by the greatest physical virtuoso pop music has ever known).
What I discovered, weirdly, is that the way I feel about his music is in some (not all, okay) senses the same way I feel about a lot of 18th century instrumental music, like a lot of Vivaldi's concerti, which I love. This pre-Romantic music is generally predictable and outlines no really profound struggle, it is repetitive, it was intended as "use-music" (music people heard in the 18th century while eating dinner or hanging out (or, you know, dancing)), and its composers, unlike the later, more privileged instrumental genre composers like Beethoven, were incredibly prolific, churning out concerto after concerto after concerto, not necessarily thinking of any of them as particularly "masterpieces." For me, none of these things diminish the music's beautiful affect or make it less interesting--either in itself, or as a cultural phenomenon. It was what it was because of its time and place, and that is fascinating to me.
In a lot of ways, the pop music of Michael Jackson is very similar. It's concerned with layers and textures, it's repetitive, it's catchy, and there's lots of it. It is intended to please and excite, not (necessarily) to intellectually challenge. And, I think it serves a similar function for its listeners. It benefits from being heard live. You're supposed to dance to it, communally, at parties.
When I listen to Michael Jackson's Music Itself--the dance hits, the Jackson 5's upbeat anthems--I am most struck by its exuberance. Its exploitation of tight, crisp percussion, very prominent basslines that are often highly complex (or "sick," as we kids call them), and surprisingly triumphant choruses that manifest an explosion of the tension built up in the verses ("Billie Jean!" "Bad!" "Beat It!" even "Man in the Mirror!")--all of these elements combine to make a powerful, purely musical, impression. I defy anyone to hear that bassline from "I Want You Back" and not be filled with joie de vivre. It's obviously not unrelated that he worked with some of the greatest producers in America, like the awesome Quincy Jones. To this day I find it difficult to LISTEN to MJ--what he makes me want to do is dance, joyfully.
But of course the most powerful element of Jackson's music was Jackson himself. That voice! What was astounding in childhood became ever-weirder and more incongruous (more "interesting," if you will) as the child aged. To many a trained musicologist's eye, he exhibited all the signs of being a castrato, and in fact it is a commonly-held theory that his father, the abusive, exploitative Joe Jackson, chemically castrated little Michael in childhood to save his amazing voice (more shades of past music history!). Poor Michael! And yet, if true, wouldn't this be at least one irrefutable proof that the Music Itself of Michael Jackson is interesting? A living castrato, singing not opera, but androgynous love songs danced to by kids. What weird feats that voice was capable of! How strangely it sounded when singing of grown-up love affairs!
Michael Jackson's voice is astonishing in its timbre and register, but also for the tight control he exercised over it. His trademark "ooh"s and "ow"s were as deliberate and precise as those crazy triplets from the "Queen of the Night." Furthermore, his voice was aligned constantly and inextricably with his body--not only because of the dark shadow of possible castration, which would make his strange voice manifestly tied to a man-made physicality--but because of the way he used his two instruments--voice and body--together. Each "ooh," each "ow," each strange mid-verse utterance, was accompanied by similarly precise and deliberate physical moves or poses. Resting abruptly on the tips of his toes like a ballerina, mic held ritualistically in front of his face; precisely-calibrated spins that exactly fill the tiny space in between two words; head-tosses; crotch-grabs. Since MJ's music grew up with MTV, and since his videos are inextricable from his music, we can all picture these poses, and feel them happening even when we listen to a recording. Thus his vocal performances became profoundly physical, linked always with his very particular and unique body.
To me, all of this is interesting. Most interesting of all is the fact that I, a trained musicologist who studies Romantic-era instrumental music, somehow continue to be intensely moved and excited by Michael Jackson's music. As I learned more about Beethoven, Jackson's music did not diminish in comparison, but rather became enriched with my increasing knowledge of music history--the beautiful, vastly-varied field of humanity's musical expression stretching all the way from Beyoncé back into the lost darkness of history...all the myriad influences that led to Jackson, all the myriad influences he continues to have on the rich, living world I inhabit.
Maybe you had to grow up listening to MJ's albums, copying his dance moves, getting your mind blown at "Captain Eo" when you were eleven, and tacking that cool tiger poster from "Thriller" up on your closet door to really appreciate the impact he had on so many people. If so, I can understand it. But I don't think anyone can (or should) argue that Michael Jackson was unimportant, or that his Music Itself was uninteresting.