Monday, February 18, 2008

The King Of Pop; Surviving On Nostalgia

Let's forget for a moment his nose is falling off, pretend there were never any pedophilia cases, no Never Land, no dangling babies of a balcony. Let's forget all that for one moment. Let's forget I do not even have to mention his name and people will know who I'm talking about just from those examples. Let's forget all that and go back 25 years. Mention "Thriller", "Billy Jean" or "Beat It" to anyone and they're just as likely to know you're talking about the King of Pop. 25 years ago Michael Jackson earned that title with the ground breaking album "Thriller". Strange and shocking as his reported personal live may be, I feel that an artist is best judged by the merit of his music. With the re-release of that land mark album that really is the question at hand. Flip open any paper or magazine recently and you'd think we're back in the time of Jackson mania. A time where "Thriller" sold a hundred million plus records. Figures that still make other super stars from the eighties like Prince, Madonna and George Michael look like dwarfs. Jackson outsold them all with the album that spawned 7 top ten singles. Still "Thriller" proved a mill stone around Jackson's neck. Where the others mentioned went on to have lasting and satisfying careers, the King of Pop could only (and did) go down hill. No Jackson album after that quite satisfied as much while his private life started to overshadow his art increasingly. Google Michael Jackson these days and you'll find nothing but picture intent on ridicule and a seemingly undying fascination with the King falling from his throne.

Question at here is though, was "Thriller" all that good, or was it a product of its hype or rather hysteria. When the album hit the market I was in primary school. Like all my class mates we were in thrall of Jackson. There was a time when almost every kid's room was plastered with posters with his diamond gloved image. "Thriller" is the textbook case of mass media's influence on public taste. Michael wasn't to be escaped. You know what they say, "If you can't beat them, join them". That mechanism seems a large part of his success looking back on the phenomenon now. But tempting as it is to break the album down, to discard it as a piece of Pop fluff doesn't quite cover it. Maybe its nostalgia but listening to "Thriller" now, I'm surprised how much of its freshness it has sustained. The sound of the album is undeniably eighties, but that really isn't much of a sin if you ask me. Even the Beatles sound locked in the sixties listening to them now. That has never stopped people from thinking their shit is chocolate. Even today there are simply moments where you can't deny the album's Pop brilliance. Drop the needle and the album opens with the contagiously funky "Wanna Be Starting Something". Though stripped from any grease and nastiness, you can't have but move to its infectious beat. "Billy Jean" and "Beat It" still achieve similar reactions as well. Tracks like that are simply brilliantly produced Pop, no denying as much as you might want to. Their influence on the current day music scene cannot be underestimated. For good or for bad, it was Jackson that launched the teen star think. Artists like Justin Timberlake owe their careers to the man.

But I am afraid that the brilliance of "Thriller" stops there. Listening to the title track today and I can't help but feel that it's hockey. Worse even is the teeth shattering sugar cane sweetness of "The Girl Is Mine" with Paul McCartney. Those tracks simply haven't outlived the hysteria. With the dust settled down some 25 years on there simply isn't a whole lot there. Though Jackson didn't over emphasize his trade mark "Shamoan!" and "Hi Hi!!" yet and though he hadn't yet locked his voice entirely into kindergarten mode, the emotional subtext is missing to many of the songs and they don't really sound as inventive now as they did then. Simply kind of bland really. Which basically is the problem with the entire album. Go beyond the sugar cane coating, the record falls apart. Jackson writes a good Pop song, sure, but he hardly ever wrote a good song. His material simply lacked the depth of albums that might have sold less in their time but seem to last longer now. If it hadn't been for the 25 years marker, there isn't much in the songs to merit its re-release. Ironically one of the album's "lesser" hits hold up best. "P.Y.T" is still the same infectious and playful Pop song as it ever was. But I'm afraid that at the end of the day "Thriller" survives mostly on our sense of nostalgia.

The original NY Times review


Brambo said...

Dear Alex,

If you ask me you wasted too many words here. Apart from 'those two songs' the album is GODDAM AWFUL! Didn't need more words than that!

SoulBoogieAlex said...

That's what I call short and effective reviewing folks ;-)