I loved many of the Jackson 5 tunes — Get It Together was an LP I listened to nonstop along with Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall record. Quincy Jones’s production on the latter LP was impeccably precise — it is as shiny a pop product as an aspiring superstar could wish for while still containing funky African-inspired grooves and textures. Significantly, though, the records that followed had fewer of these elements, but sold more copies. I didn’t like Thriller or Bad — they seemed to me like pure pandering to the mass (white) pop audience. But the coda of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” on Off The Wall is pure intersecting overlapping lilting Africa. (Later Michael would “quote” the great Manu Dibango song “Soul Makossa” and “forget” to give credit.) That same song’s reference to The Force was a corny “Hey I’ve got a great idea for a pop novelty song! Let’s reference Star Wars!” kind of idea that a 13-year-old boy might have — but the groove and Michael’s singing transcended much of that silliness.
At that point Jackson was still a young black man — he had yet to transform into the androgynous eccentric that he would become. He claimed his skin bleaching was the result of disease, but most of us who know about the lightening creams that sadly abound in black neighborhoods and throughout the Third World suspected differently.
The shock, to me, was that a young black man who was conquering the world of white pop (and video! He was the ONLY black man on MTV!) was simultaneously ashamed or very mixed up about his blackness. What kind of example does it set for black adolescents watching Michael get whiter and whiter every year? How’s a Brother supposed to get further with this shit going on?
From the NY Times:
A life in the pill bottle tied Michael to Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and too many more. The surreal chemical universe these stars create for themselves is hard for me to fathom — when I have some success (at least recently), I’m very happy about it. Of course, my success is nowhere near what theirs was — I can live a normal life and buy toilet paper and OJ at the corner deli. In a way it seems a retreat to origins, to the womb of poor beginnings in Gary, Indiana or Tupelo, Mississippi — where, in a kind of weird link between distant galaxies, poor folks also pop painkillers like OxyContin if and when they can.