POTW #2: The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

“Be strong, godson — the Gloved One is not a sucker!”

— James Brown, MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” music video

So, as everyone in the universe obviously knows by now, Michael Jackson died on Thursday after suffering a heart attack. Michael was the King of Pop, a man who spent his entire life in the public eye and created some classic pop music for most of it. Everyone likes something Michael Jackson created during his long and incredibly successful career in music. This is because when he was at the top of his game, he found ways to connect with all kinds of music fans. He invented the Moonwalk, won a ton of awards, scored tons of hit singles, revolutionized the music video, was among the masterminds behind USA For Africa (he co-wrote “We Are The World”), made the best-selling album in the history of music (Thriller), and struck a chord with millions of people worldwide. And he did it in spite of violent abuse from his father as a child and deep-rooted mental traumas that haunted him throughout his life.

Over the last 20 years he became a highly controversial and polarizing figure, due in no small part to allegations of child molestation and questions surrounding his abilities as a parent. He also had numerous plastic surgeries done to his face, completely disfiguring his nose. As a result, he became known less as the King of Pop and more as Wacko Jacko.

The Fall Of Troy, “Whacko Jacko Steals The Elephant Man’s Bones”

But we’re not here to talk about any of that stuff. See, in one of my English classes this past semester, I learned the concept of “the death of the author.” Basically what that means is that criticism is at its most effective when you separate the creator from his or her work. People tend to put more focus on what they think a work meant to its creator rather than their own interpretation of the work. It’s about reviewing the work itself and ignoring external factors.

So today, for my picks of the week, we’re going to take a look at some King of Pop classics for the great pop songs they are and just ignore all this Wacko Jacko business for a little bit. Not to sound hypocritical or anything, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Michael would have wanted.

Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

Michael Jackson, “Rock With You”

Who says disco sucks? Go ahead, sit there and listen to these classic cuts from Off The Wall and just try not to tap your toes. These songs can still pack dance floors even to this day, thirty years after they were released. They’re funky, they’re fresh, and they’re tons of fun. Yes, Michael’s sequined jumpsuit in the “Rock With You” video looks kind of ridiculous and probably even looked silly back in 1979. But you’ll be too busy dancing to even know there’s a video playing on your computer.

Michael Jackson, “Beat It”

Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”

And now we get into the Thriller era. Now, I know what you’re all thinking — where’s the title track? Huh? Where’s “Thriller”? Well, to be honest, I remember “Thriller” more for its still-awesome music video than for being a great song. On just about any other pop album ever made it could have been a standout track, but for me it gets totally overshadowed by the greatness of the two tracks following it in the running order: “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” Plus, if I were to go through all of Michael Jackson’s classics, we’d be here all day.

You want to know why Thriller remains one of the most successful albums ever made? Because, on this album arguably moreso than his other work, Michael Jackson found ways to appeal to all kinds of music fans. If you liked hard rock, you could always air-guitar along with Eddie Van Halen’s solo in “Beat It.” If you preferred the classics, hey, look at that — it’s Paul McCartney guest-starring in “The Girl Is Mine.” Want to slow things down with a ballad? “Human Nature” and “The Lady In My Life” are there. And if you want to dance, well, take your pick. The King of Pop was at the top of his game with this album, so it’s really no wonder that it was successful. Could anyone have predicted the massive success that it was? Well, no. But it’s good enough to deserve its popularity. And the world will never see another album as big as Thriller again.

Michael Jackson, “Leave Me Alone”

What we have here is probably one of Michael Jackson’s most underrated songs. How underrated is “Leave Me Alone”? Well, the man himself apparently didn’t think it was good enough to include in the original tracklisting for Bad. It’s featured as a bonus track, but only on the CD release. It was released as the eighth single from Bad (albums rarely have more than four singles; Michael topped that mark five times in a row), but was never a single in the United States. And to top it all off, it was never featured in any of his world tours. All this for a song that Allmusic called the best song on Bad.

Michael Jackson, “Black Or White”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you quite possibly the most excessive music video ever made. Now, Michael Jackson was really into making cinematic music videos; “Thriller” and “Beat It” in particular were brilliant videos that played out sort of like short films. Hell, the “Thriller” video even comes complete with a title screen and a closing-credit sequence. But the stories those videos told, while high-concept for music videos, were pretty simple but effective stories that were easy to follow.

With “Black Or White,” Michael might as well have changed his surname to Bay. Everything about this video screams “LOOK HOW COOL THIS IS” at the top of its lungs. Macaulay Culkin (the kid from Home Alone) is in this video, and his dad is played by Norm from Cheers. They star in a skit that doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of this video, although Culkin does pop up later to — are you ready for this? — rap. There are African tribal dancers, an Old West cowboys-and-Indians gunfight, scenes of Jackson walking through lots of big explosions, Jackson transforming into a panther, Jackson smashing the shit out of a car (there are racial slurs digitally added to its windows), Jackson dancing in the Statue of Liberty’s torch, Macaulay Culkin rapping (I cannot stress this enough), Jackson grabbing his crotch a lot, Jackson making a sign explode, and lots of face morphing at the end of the song. The face morphing effect is still really cool, and I think they actually could have made that the whole video while keeping the “racial unity” theme of the song intact. Everything else is just so over-the-top that it kind of distracts from the song itself, which is a bummer because “Black Or White” has a pretty great vocal hook.

So anyway, that just about covers it for now… except for one more thing.

Alien Ant Farm, “Smooth Criminal”

What can I say? I’ve always liked this cover. I love the tongue-in-cheek vibe they bring to it, what with all the exaggerated Jacksonesque vocal inflections you can hear in the background (WOO!) and the video’s playful references to all things surrounding the King of Pop.

Once again, no matter what you thought of Michael Jackson, hopefully we can still at least enjoy the genius of his music. And this is probably going to be one of the only times I’ll ever actually be sincere in my use of the phrase “enjoy the genius.”

Hail to the king, baby.

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