If you take pop history from the emergence of Elvis to right now, the release of Thriller– the highest selling album there will ever be – sits at the midpoint. This coincidence nagged at me when I reviewed the album’s reissue, not very well, for Pitchfork. My original draft (rightly rejected) was built on multiple ideas of Jackson as a “black swan”: a graceful exotic creature, an event that resets its context, a freak.
People try and explain black swans after the fact: with Jackson, explanation begins with the combination of astonishing talent and a truly dreadful upbringing. Jackson’s brutalisation by his father is the kind of horror story we associate with the worst parts of pro sport – the mechanisation of ability in a drive for perfection. It’s rarer in showbiz, because the structure of success is looser. Michael Jackson’s success – and what success! – sits on a double fluke: that he managed to funnel his talent through his dehumanisation, and that the public responded in such phenomenal numbers to his unique perspective.
That success led to a second dehumanisation, which Jackson himself colluded in. Here am I, writing what might have been an obituary type piece, and all I can think about are history and abstractions: the real, dead man is too remote. The Jackson it’s easy to empathise with fell into shadow a long time ago. When I heard about his death the music I wanted to play wasn’t Off The Wall, or Thriller, but the strange, sad, overblown records he made in the 90s – overshadowed by headlines and accusations, but home to some of the oddest and darkest pop of any era.
There’ll be a reassessment, naturally – ballads like “Butterflies” and “Stranger In Moscow” are too strong for there not to be. In comparison to “Off The Wall” or “PYT” of course, they sound petrified, seized up. In fact a lot of the 90s material sounds like multiple drafts of one single, crushed and frightened song by a man desperate to get the pain out: “Here abandoned in my fame / Armageddon of the brain.” Even the much-mocked “Earth Song” sounds like a projection – what if the world was as hurt as me?
And what about the King of Pop’s Kingdom, long abandoned? The title was one he grabbed for himself: in fact “pop” in that all-encompassing sense was partly an effect of Jackson himself, not an inheritance for him to claim. The outrageous success of Thriller – the ultimate crossover – created the impression that the fragmentation of pop in the 70s could be reversed, and a generation of new megastars helped Jackson hold back that particular tide. But that version of “pop” died well before Jackson did. On LiveJournal Mark S wrote: “I sorta kinda judge that our age is over”, and I sorta kinda know what he means.