Black Music Month Day #11
Almost two years ago, on the 25thof June, during Black Music Month, the world said a very sad goodbye to
Michael Joseph Jackson, who had passed away too soon. Although he became a pop star, he was also considered larger than any generic label or marketing category because of the expanse of his vision and appeal. When he first burst onto the scene as a child, however, he and his brothers the Jackson 5 occupied the short-lived genre “bubblegum soul.”
Presumably targeted at teenagers, the Jackson 5’s appeal soon eclipsed this demographic, primarily because of the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (the accident of good timing) and the riveting outsized talent of the group’s lead singer, Michael (a collusion of nature and nurture—on this last point, I’ll forego discussion of the abuse he suffered in childhood). MJ’s work during these early years set the stage for a later period during which he rose to international superstardom, and with that, an unmatched level of media scrutiny and subsequent scholarly reflection. Unfortunately, his star rose, went nova, and left him secluded, just as ridiculed as he was beloved; as ostracized as he was respected for his achievements and philanthropy. In her new book Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole Fleetwood writes, “[p]rior to his death, Jackson had achieved a place in popular culture as dehumanized icon. He was no longer alive but also not dead. He had ceased being flesh; for years, he had performed a transmorgrification that had shifted his role in popular culture and fandom from beloved to shocking to lamentable to repulsive, for many.” What a fall from grace.
Let’s go back to that moment before hyper-stardom when MJ epitomized the paradigm of “Child Star” so generously described by critic Margo Jefferson in her book On Michael Jackson. I’ve been recently fascinated to discover some youtube acapella versions of MJ as a singing kid. Together with some great footage from the Ed Sullivan show we get to experience unadorned some of the musical details that fascinated the listening/viewing public. Before the numerous sex, skin, gender, and hair scandals over which much, much ink has been spilled, there was a genius of a musical architect named Michael encased in a small, animated body. He had mastered key elements of sound and the use of space. The mechanics of his art were, indeed, recognized and already in place in way that seemed to celebrate humanity on the formal level. And all this was at a time when being seen as “human” was very much on the minds of many African Americans.
The 1970 Number 1 hit, “Stop the Love You Save,” recorded on the Motown label in Los Angeles, was written by a group of songwriters named “the Corporation,” which included Berry Gordy and other studio musicians. When you listen to the following example you hear a prepubescent Michael as a boy soprano, working the life out of some high g’s with uncanny assurance. (That’s a little higher than the typical boy soprano). The song is in E, positioning those g’s as “blue notes.” He knew how to scrape it, milk it, and kick it with a sincerity and soulful aplomb beyond his years. Pitched at the very top of his range, when MJ implores a young girl to stop, he sounds like he really means it. Stripped of the accompanying band track, we can better hear how planned his breaths are, how secure the intonation and enunciation, how demanding he was on himself. The give-and-go call and response between MJ and Jermaine—complete with slick elisions—demonstrate the polished quality of the lead vocals. Michael sticks close to the melody in the Motown tradition: keep it simple, declarative, catchy. Michael delivered these goods but with a nuance showing the intense amount of care and study it took for him to give the musical director what he may have demanded AND toss in his funky stuff, too—mostly in the realm of timbre and subtle oral declamation.
The following clip is a lip-synced performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Two layers of practice are added to the mix: the musical accompaniment and the choreography. Although bubblegum soul was known for its simplicity, the song itself and the arrangement of it constitute elaborate pop music. Melodies and counter-melodies swim around during the introduction; the harmonies move sequentially; crash symbols and tambourines proceed in separate, strict patterns, the guitars’ division of labor—a constant rhythm strumming against a picked single note. The strings at the climax of the song add the cherry on top, a slick touch to an already dense and driving soundscape. What about dance and space? The visual element is equally packed due to MJ’s point and counterpoint with his brothers’ dancing. His charisma amazes as moves in and out of sync with his background dancers in the same way that his vocals do in the soundscape.
The Jackson 5’s popularity reached across racial lines. But at a
time when black stars were rare sightings on television, this group was held in especially high esteem in African American communities. Polished, youthful, confident, talented, and ambitious, they brought a new generation to Motown. And as a boy the same age as Michael, that perfectly round Afro was something to aspire to—me, the kid who grew the hair long before I got used to the idea of going through the bother of running a comb through it. Thank you, MJ.