Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part III. COVERING THRILLER

THE THIRD AND FINAL FATHER

MICHAEL WAS RAISED IN WHAT WAS IN SOME ways a very traditional family, with Joe a real old-school patriarch and his mother a quietly solid center. Yet in his professional life, Michael had a slew of surrogate parents, many of them celebrities or behind-the-scenes forces who offered tangible, hands-on help (Berry Gordy, Paul McCartney); gave him advice on stardom (Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor); or inspired him (Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Wilson). Michael was constantly in search of new information on the art of entertainment even as his personal life became more removed from day-to-day existence. But it is his role as father that I find so fascinating because I believe that for the last twenty or so years of his life, Michael became his own father figure.

He’d been prodded, cajoled, struck, and cultivated by his biological father, a relationship that molded Michael as a performer and scarred his sensitive psyche to a degree he never could escape. Quincy Jones, one of his mentor fathers and perhaps the most important among them, guided and facilitated Michael’s growth from young man to adult artist. Michael developed to the point that he felt he’d outgrown Quincy’s advice and even chafed at having to treat him as a peer.

Both Joe Jackson and Quincy Jones, products of a tough midwestern working-poor world that Michael had escaped before being completely shaped by it, had served Michael’s talent and profited handsomely from it as well. (You could toss Berry Gordy into this mix as another crucial father figure if you like, but his connection to Michael seems less visceral, more distant, than Michael’s bond with Joe or Quincy. Also their relationship was complicated by Jermaine’s marriage to Gordy’s daughter Hazel, which changed the dynamic among everyone in that circle.)

After Bad, his last album with Quincy, and the Victory tour, his last obligation to his brothers and father, Michael followed his own compass, shedding his fathers, real and surrogate, and becoming a father himself. Crucially, Michael saw himself as a father not only to his three kids, but also to all the world’s children.

Intertwined with this idealized vision of himself as a benign, eternal protector of the innocent was a self-righteous rage that spilled over into much of the music he made from 1987 until 2009. For every sweet, sexy “Remember the Time,” there were a number of songs that seemed aimed at his father, the media, dangerous women, or, perhaps subconsciously, himself. The ongoing theme of predatory women, from “Billie Jean” through “Dirty Diana” and others, was as insistent a trait as in the music of Jay-Z or other hip-hop artists. There’s no doubt that Michael admired, even idolized, women, but any desire for them seemed tempered (or maybe blunted) by his suspicions. This father didn’t need a wife to complete him, nor did he want a mother around to compete for his children’s affections.

In his world he was a monarch, something apparent in his moniker as the King of Pop, his endless stream of military jackets, and the quasi-fascist iconography of his videos (such as his use of the Romanian Army as extras in the pompous concert DVD shot in Bucharest in 1992). Yet after the Bad album, which did well but didn’t come close to matching Thriller, Michael knew he had to compete for record sales with younger stars, particularly in the United States, where musical memories can be short.

IT’S OFTEN BEEN OBSERVED that for athletes the legs are the first to go. They don’t run as fast, jump as high, or fool others as easily with clever footwork. I think a similar thing is true of pop stars. As they age, they don’t move as swiftly or as gracefully onstage, and their understanding of dance music erodes. When pop stars are young, making music, creating danceable music for peers, comes easily, because they are their own audience as much as fans are. Ray Charles, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson, men who made some of the greatest jams of their era, found their commercial fortunes begin to ebb as soon as they lost touch with the dance floor.

Their musical skills don’t erode, however. In fact, with age and wisdom, musicians are capable of ever more sophisticated, emotional performances. Charles had many poignant late-career ballads, and Stevie Wonder and Prince, well past their commercial prime, are still capable of solid mid-tempo records. Ballads, which require a sense of drama and real musical acumen to execute well, can be performed ably at every age. But to consistently fill a dance floor with young people is a rare gift for a recording artist older than thirty and almost impossible for singers who are past forty.

So sometime between Bad in 1987 and Dangerous in 1991, Michael made a fateful decision. He’d been working with Quincy Jones as his primary producer for ten years, from age nineteen to twenty-nine, which in pop music terms is almost three lifetimes. In the twenty-first century, one producer rarely does one whole album with an artist, much less three. On the face of it, Michael chose Teddy Riley as his new muse, but in truth he replaced Quincy with himself. Even though Teddy would produce most of Dangerous and contribute to much of Michael’s recorded output, over the course of his final albums Michael worked with a wide range of producer/writers, often in search of dance floor credibility and contemporary sounds.

FOR MICHAEL, and all progressive pop artists of the last forty years, there were two dance-based movements you had to come to terms with. The first was disco, which Michael easily absorbed into his DNA because disco was really an extension of the danceable R&B music he’d already been making. The second force was hip-hop, which was based primarily on the beats and, to a lesser degree, on the hooky choruses of the R&B that Michael had been reared on. And compared to a great many of his peers, he utilized the rhythmic energy of hip-hop well—at least for a while.

I interviewed Teddy Riley in 2007 when VH1’s Hip Hop Honors celebrated his fusion of hip-hop and R&B. Our interview eventually drifted into a long conversation about his working relationship with Michael Jackson, which revealed the singer’s working methods and eccentricities in the post-Quincy era. “Michael had originally reached out to me for the Bad album, but there was a mix-up and it didn’t happen,” Teddy recalled.

When I spoke to Michael, we kinda talked like we were cousins already, like family, ’cause he was like, “You’re going out to California.” I said, “I am?” He said, “Yes. I already got your plane ticket.” So he had the ticket and everything for me to come the following Tuesday. This was a Friday. I flew to California from Virginia, where I was building my studio. So the plane trip took five hours, and from LAX they took me to the helicopter dock, which flew me to Neverland.

When he landed, Teddy saw lots of animals and security.

They were coming out of the ground. You know like they just appeared. First thing they did, they had me sign this contract agreement, saying that anything you see here on Neverland, you must never talk about. So I signed it and they took me into the house to this room with everything in it. He had this chess set. It was actually platinum and gold. I went to touch this piece. He was right behind me and he taps my shoulder.

We laughed and then we went to another room and we sat down and he started asking me all the things I liked. He just started asking me everything about my life and how I came up with songs. His favorite song of mine was “We Can Spend the Night” by GUY. He said, “I love this song. I want a song like this.” Then we went from that room to the game room, which had pretty much everything you could imagine. He showed me that and then took me to his zoo. We just kind [of] chopped it up from there.

After the Neverland tour and the getting-to-know-each-other pleasantries, Michael got down to specifics, asking Teddy what studio he liked to use in LA. Riley favored Larrabee, so Michael made a deal with the studio to create bedrooms for both men because, in Michael’s words, “we’re gonna be there a long time.” The singer told Riley he envisioned them working on the album for as long as a year. In fact, Riley would work with Michael on the Dangerous album for fifteen months after their initial meeting.

The budget for such a commitment at a major LA studio in the 1990s was at least $1 million. And a lot of that time was definitely wasted. If you want to get an idea of how Michael got into financial trouble, listen to this:

We were working on vocals and in the middle of the session, Michael Jackson left out. I thought he was going to take care of some business in the city. He actually left out and took a plane to Australia. I didn’t know what to do. He called me from the plane and said, “Teddy, I had to take a very important trip.” I said, “I thought you were coming back to do vocals.” Michael was headed Down Under to appear at the opening of a new mall he owned and wouldn’t be back for a week or two.

This attitude was so different from that of the disciplined young artist of the early 1980s who came to work focused and cut Thriller in roughly seven months. While Teddy was working in LA, other hot black pop producers, from L. A. Reid and Babyface Edmonds to “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis to Dallas Austin, would be cutting songs intended for Michael. At the time of his death, there were hundreds of songs—some completed tracks, some half done, some just demos—in Michael’s archives with everyone from Akron to Will.i.am. (Several tracks on Justin Timberlake’s Off the Wall-flavored Justified were originally written for Michael by the Neptunes, such as the song “Take It from Here.”)

None of these other working relationships seemed quite as intensive as Riley’s, however. Over fifteen months, Riley got quite homesick for friends and family on the East Coast, but Michael wouldn’t give him permission to leave LA. “I told him, ‘Man, I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss my dog.’ Michael just said, ‘Bring everybody to California.’” So Riley’s other producing partners, many friends, his kids, and a couple of cousins were all relocated to California on Michael’s dime for an open-ended visit. “It was just so crazy how that whole project went,” Riley recalled with a laugh.

Though haunted by Michael’s need for control and waste of money, some of Michael’s best post-Thriller music came out of his collaboration with Riley. The most compelling composition was “Remember the Time,” the closest thing in quality and feel to a classic such as “Rock with You.” The song was one of thirteen tracks that Riley brought with him to LA for Jackson, but its final form was dictated by the singer’s approach to songwriting. Riley, a product of the drum machine era, worked from the rhythm track out:

[My style is] going bang out the beat, get the vocals and write on the spot. Or write it and come back in two hours. His method is leave all the tracks, leave all the keyboards, and we’re going to this room with a piano. We’re gonna do this old style. . . . So thank god for the skills that I have abilities to actually play a little. I started playing some things for him and he started singing and I started playing what he was singing. I started playing the chords to “Remember the Time” and he said, “I like that”; he started doing the beat box and we came up with the song.

I asked him what was the next move. He said, “Go make the track.” But the track was already done, so I kinda played a trick on him. I already had it prepared. I like my music loud and he likes his louder than loud. So he brought in Emmanuel [Lewis] in the room and said, “Man, you gotta check this out. I’m telling you it’s hot.” I was really in suspense because Michael said, “Start the track over.” So we finally start the track and Emmanuel Lewis is up there doing the electric boogie and poppin’ and everybody is like “We got to finish this. We got to get it out there.” We did this the first or second month I’m out there. The album didn’t come out until nine months later.

In Michael’s post-Thriller world, deadlines meant nothing, having hot tracks meant nothing. He would work on music until he was satisfied or, finally, forced to finish it.

We’re working on this album and nothing is really pushing Michael to get this album out there until Tommy Mottola and the company started putting out commercials. They already had their timeline. Now he’s already skipped maybe one, two, three release dates. So I was at the hotel and he woke me up with a call. “Teddy, you got to get over here right now. I need your help on this. And then you have to go back to Virginia to mix this.” So I went back to VA to mix the song “Dangerous” ’cause he liked the sound of my place in Virginia.

Teddy would end up adding percussion and some other elements to “Black or White” as Michael finally rushed to complete the long overdue project. “He always asked me, ‘You think we’re finished with this song?’ and I always said, ‘Yeah, we’re finished.’”

The other seminal Jackson-Riley collaboration was “Jam,” and not because the video featured the world’s two greatest MJ’s—Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. Whereas new jack swing defined 1990s R&B, “Jam” would establish a template for the future. Back when Rod Temperton first began writing for Michael, he noticed the singer’s extraordinary facility for singing short, percussive notes. So Temperton focused on creating melodies that incorporated staccato rhythms. With “Jam,” Michael, Teddy, and their studiomates took this tendency to the next level.

On the verses Michael spews words across the track like an AK-47 assault rifle, a ferociously controlled vocal that is as close to rapping as a singer can come. The glib-tongued Heavy D, a longtime Riley collaborator, rhymes on the bridge with his typical deep-voiced grace, but he is no match for Michael’s clipped, emotionally charged cadences. This rapid, chopped-up approach to melody would be picked up by a new generation of artists and songwriters, children of both Michael and hip-hop. Hit-driven urban radio in the twenty-first century is filled with songs written with quarter notes and eighth notes and can sound constricted to ears used to longer melody lines.

But in the hands of R. Kelly (“Ignition”) or Beyoncé Knowles (“Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Single Ladies [Put a Ring on It]”), these notes sound like what they are: a clever singer’s response to the rhythmic power of MCs. In fact, the ubiquity of the short-note cadence has allowed many MCs to sing/rap to access melody in their material. From Ja Rule to 50 Cent to Lil Wayne, most of the most commercially successful figures in twenty-first-century hip-hop have applied their limited vocal ability, but heightened rhythmic sense, to songs structured this way.

MICHAEL’S RELATIONSHIP TO hip-hop is actually surprisingly intimate. All of his post-Quincy producers mention Michael’s use of the beat box. Whether from listening to Doug E. Fresh or Biz Markie or the Fat Boys, Michael became enamored with the use of his voice to create beats and suggest rhythm arrangements. He’d use the beat box to explain the feel and pace he wanted for a track to the younger musicians he was now working with, many of whom had been toddlers when Thriller was first released. Around the Internet, tapes of Michael beat-boxing can be found, all reflecting his dynamic rhythmic sensibility. Sadly, I haven’t yet heard a tape of Michael actually rhyming MC style, but he must have given it a try at least once.

Michael’s recordings, both with the Jackson 5 and his solo records, have been a rich source of hip-hop samples. Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P” took the teenybopper innocence of “ABC” and transformed it into an upbeat anthem of infidelity in 1991. SWV, a new jill swing female vocal trio, made excellent use of Michael’s “Human Nature,” weaving his voice through a cutesy pop song of their own. Rap icon Nas used the same song as the foundation of his “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” from his classic Illmatic album. De La Soul and Tupac Shakur are just a couple of other major hip-hop artists to make significant use of Michael’s music. However, Michael most obviously influenced Usher (who sang movingly at the Staples Center tribute) and Justin Timberlake, both performers who consciously pay homage to Michael in their stage moves and many of their recordings.

Michael’s impact on female performers of this generation is just as strong. Just as Michael was a legendary workaholic, Beyoncé has made her own mark as a relentless perfectionist with a taste for onstage drama. I used to work out at a posh Upper West Side athletic club. One afternoon when I was there to play some basketball, I noticed a very determined young light-skinned black woman grinding away on the Stair-master, with a trainer and rather large man hovering nearby. On closer (but not too close) inspection, I saw that the woman with the do-rag, sweat-soaked athletic tee, and plastic workout pants was Beyoncé, then an emerging star on the verge of something bigger. I don’t know how long she’d been climbing that particular mechanical mountain, but she was still on it long after I’d played my third two-on-two game in a row.

Later that week, Beyoncé made a spectacular appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall. Dangling from the high ceiling with a thick rope wrapped around one of her legs, Beyoncé then descended to the famous stage and immediately moved into some show-stopping choreography. As I sat in my seat, I knew I was witnessing a defining moment for this young artist. It wasn’t the moon-walk on Motown 25, but it was an exciting performance for a music channel that hadn’t yet completely capitulated to the reality TV monster.

It’s funny to me that Beyoncé’s hard work, which is apparent in her singing, performance style, and tour schedule (not to mention athletic workouts), is one of the chief criticisms leveled at her. Her workaholic tendencies have made many unfairly label her as robotic or mechanical. The recording techniques of contemporary dance pop, which is Beyoncé’s sweet spot, are all about brittle, digital timbers, tight chromatic melodies, and sounds not found in nature. I must admit her signature chopped-up verses, which encourage a kind of rap singing, can sound more strenuous than sensuous. All of which makes you feel her music doesn’t soothe, but it does engage.

With Michael as a role model, the lady is clearly consumed with some form of pop world domination. In my travels to places such as India and Brazil in the last few years, I’ve seen that Beyoncé is one of the few relatively young African American recording artists with a high profile. That happens only with a consistent flow of material and a willingness to travel overseas to support the music—both of which this Houston native has been diligent about.

In contrast to the gifted neo-soul generation that preceded her (Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell), folks who made smashing debuts and then got sidetracked by eccentricity and self-doubt, Beyoncé has put her head down and done the work. That she’s managed by her father, Matthew Knowles, and left a successful group, Destiny’s Child, to go solo make the MJ parallels even stronger.

But Beyoncé’s narrative seems remarkably unmarred by personal demons. She has been able to appear in several commercially successful motion pictures, she has her own clothing line, and she has married a man who’s as confident as she is, which by contemporary show biz standards is as normal as it gets. However, the chances of any Beyoncé album having a Thriller-sized success are slim, to say the least, because she’s a star in the wrong era of pop music.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW how much the record industry has contracted, just look at my Facebook friends: ex-head of Urban Music at EMI; former record promotion executive at Epic; former program director at a major R&B station, now working in digital media for an ad agency; vice president for publicity at RCA, now selling real estate. And the list goes on. These folks took me to lunch, hosted listening parties, and flashed their corporate Am Ex cards with pride. A lot of them got pushed out by hip-hop in the 1990s, which was a major generational upheaval in the industry, but a lot of them would still have jobs at major labels if those companies had not become dinosaurs.

These were definitely self-inflicted wounds. I was teaching a course at New York University in, of all things, the history of the record industry in 2001 when the school’s entire e-mail system crashed. Several other universities had the same experience. The crashes were caused by something called Napster, which, being a veteran record biz insider, I had no idea even existed. My NYU students, who were participating in a pilot program for a record industry major funded by mogul Clive Davis, schooled me in the intricacies of file sharing. The future was here: peer-to-peer music with no payments, no royalties, no copyright protections.

The Recording Industry Association of America, the umbrella organization representing the legal and lobbying interest of the major labels, came up with the silliest counter-strategy of all time: Let’s sue the kid who designed the technology—young Shawn Fanning—and the thousands sharing free music. Even though Napster would eventually be neutered, file sharing stayed virile. This punitive stance by the industry leaders alienated consumers, musicians, and media alike and did nothing to stem the technological tide.

In fact, it just reinforced the record industry’s unsavory (and often earned) rep as a bastion of greedy scoundrels. Moreover, the industry did little to develop its own online music sales capabilities, clinging to a brick-mortar-business model that made money selling the containers (vinyl, CDs, cassettes) as much as the music inside. The industry fell behind the tech curve in the beginning of this century and remains there to this day.

Power has shifted from the corporate labels to scattered fiefdoms, decentralized around stars (Jay-Z, U2, Green Day), tastemaker sites (Pitchfork Media, AllHipHop.com), hardware manufacturers (Apple), and various nonmusic corporate underwriters. The days when Walter Yentikoff at Sony (or Mo Ostin at Warner Bros. or Clive Davis at Arista) could funnel an artist, such as Michael Jackson, Prince, or Whitney Houston, through pop radio, national record chains, and MTV to ensure maximum attention seem as ancient as a Motorola high fidelity stereo. This is not to say these old tools aren’t still employed (see the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus), but now audiences receive and use media in ways that make the old top-down model just one cog in a multispoked wheel. The corrupt simplicity of the old record business has been replaced by the chaotic democracy of today.

Stars still emerge from music, but they are dwarfed by Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto, and the rest, video games in which music is an important piece, but the game itself is the star and a much bigger business. In fact, music is an aspect of every leisure-time activity in video games or is central to so many sites on the web. But it is no simple thing to galvanize a planet around a singer. It happened only rarely before Michael Jackson and hasn’t happened since his peak. What are the chances of it happening again? Not much.