Friday Five: Michael Jackson

How big can a person get? How famous? How well-known?

One of the things that future generations will struggle to understand is the scope of the popularity of Michael Jackson in the early 1980s. For a few years, when his album Thriller ruled the charts and he and his brothers toured the world, he was just about as big as a single human being could get.

In some ways, that level of stardom has to do with so much more than talent. Michael Jackson was a product of his commercial moment. He thrived in a time when pop cultural outlets were still few enough that you could dominate the mainstream like an atom bomb. He rose to extreme fame in an era of video, when what could be seen was as important as what could be heard. And he became the cultural sensation he was at a time when the major, global corporations ascended in their control of the commercial business of pop.

Elvis was as big as someone could get in a national and international marketplace using the mechanisms of his time. Michael Jackson was the same for his. I can’t imagine the present commercial structure will ever produce another cultural figure of the same magnitude. I don’t see how it ever could.

I’ve said very little about the musical talent of Michael Jackson, but none of what I’ve said can be separated from that talent. Michael was a gifted singer and dancer from a very young age. As the voice of the Jackson 5 he amazed everyone with his level of professional skill. He managed to surpass the amazing talent of his childhood as he grew into an adult career that showed he was as good as everyone had hoped.

Michael Jackson was more than a voice. He wrote many of his lyrics and music. He was a master of beat. He also helped produce, arrange, and mix his music, most famously with Quincy Jones.

A list of only five songs by Michael Jackson is reductive and selective, as it is with any artists whose career spans decades. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll choose from his solo career, with a nod to viewing him in his full arc rather than just at the height of the phenomenon.

5. “Rock With You” (1979)
From his 20 million-selling album Off the Wall, this song is generally considered one of the last hits of the disco era. Like the best bits of the album, however, it’s really a bridge between that genre and what was to come.

4. “Smooth Criminal” (1987)
This was the seventh (!!) single released from Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. Written by Michael, the song evolved over a period of a few years before becoming what we hear below. The video was a controversy in itself when it premiered on TV in 1988.

3. “Man in the Mirror” (1987)
Michael grew increasingly politically-aligned in the 80s, first with his efforts as part of USA for Africa and later as an environmentalist and advocate for children’s causes. His fall into scandal in the 1990s lessened the impact he could have had but, at the height of his stardom, his soapbox was as strong as anyone person’s could be. This song is preachy and a little cheesy, but the performance (here mixed in with some of the human results) is something I’ve always found so compelling.

2. “Billie Jean” (1982)
This is the biggest selling single from the biggest selling album of all time. Beneath all the hype, the moonwalk, the video sensation, is a beat. An amazing beat coupled with a falsetto weep. Here’s the performance that aired as part of Motown’s 25th anniversary special, the moonwalk seen round the world…

1. “Human Nature” (1982)
Released as the fifth single to his best-selling album, “Human Nature” isn’t written by or produced by Michael but his performance makes it what it is. While lots of songs could compete for his “best,” this one is certainly my favorite. His live performances of it capture a lot of his adult talent.

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