JEFFREY BROWN: When Michael Jackson reached new heights in the 1980s, it wasn’t solely because of his best-selling albums. He also helped produce and starred in a series of groundbreaking music videos that showcased his dancing and choreography.
Not incidentally, they also helped fuel the rise of MTV. Here are clips from two of the videos he made for his “Thriller” album: first, “Billie Jean”; and then, “Beat It.”
And some final thoughts now about Michael Jackson from Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. He’s an author and critic who’s written widely about contemporary music.
And Garth Trinidad, a D.J. and event producer who’s worked with artists such as Jill Scott and Gnarls Barkley, he also hosts his own show on KCRW Public Radio in Santa Monica, California.
Anthony DeCurtis, we just saw him in the ’80s, but I want to go back further, because I well remember those Jackson 5 days. It was already clear that this was an unusual and precocious talent, right?
ANTHONY DECURTIS, Rolling Stone Magazine: Immediately. You know, there was a very clear sense — I mean, the first time that you saw the Jackson 5, Michael was just electrifying, but also a delightful presence.
I mean, I always think of him as kind of everybody’s younger brother, you know. He had this tremendous command as a performer, at the same time as just an enormous amount of charm. He had all the moves of Jackie Wilson and James Brown, whom he had studied, wonderful singer, and just had a gleam in his eye that was just such a pleasure, I think, that everybody took in seeing Michael at that stage of his career.
Reaching a wider audience
JEFFREY BROWN: Garth Trinidad, he's coming out of and expanding this great Motown tradition. How did he reach a wider mainstream audience? Part of this, of course, I guess, involves breaking down racial categories.
GARTH TRINIDAD, KCRW Santa Monica: You know, Berry Gordy was a genius. What he did with Motown was phenomenal. And I think that what happened with Michael and his brothers early on with the Jackson 5 was one of the very first times we saw multiple artists of color in America, in one group, related, expand and transcend just the sort of musical landscape.
And when they went on to have the variety program that they had, which was phenomenal, and then they went on to have the cartoon that they had, which was great, they just completely began to break everything down.
And I think they really changed the game with that in mind, because they broke out of just music, just that format. And the television, and marketing, and product, and clothing, it was just one of the first times we saw the idea that you could crosspollinate. And, you know, J-5, Jackson 5, they did it.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Anthony DeCurtis, when we bring it up to the '80s, we played early in the program a little bit of a conversation I had earlier today with Quincy Jones, who was his collaborator and producer on those things.
When I asked Quincy Jones about how that happened, you know, what happened, he talked a little bit about everything just coming together against the odds, the performer, the music, the technology, the production values and all.
Does that sound right? Does anyone know why one thing takes off into the musical stratosphere?
ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well, there is that magic that happens when -- you know, do the times create the person who realizes the possibilities or does the person change the times? You know, it's a bit of both. Michael Jackson, you know, was somebody who always loved movies, for example, and loved classic Hollywood musicals.
But before MTV, would he have been able to really realize those visual possibilities of what music is? Probably not. But suddenly there's this new, you know, television channel making this possible. Here's an artist who has the vision to understand what's possible.
And it's, you know, one of those perfect storms of, you know, a tremendous genius-level talent, and suddenly an audience that's ready for, you know, an African-American performer of his talent, and the whole thing just exploded.
Complicated personal story
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Garth Trinidad, it is and yet still a kind of complicated story, because there is inevitably this -- the personal eccentricities that came out, the strangeness of his celebrity, and it sometimes bordered on the tragic. Does anyone know where all that came from or what kind of toll it all took?
GARTH TRINIDAD: You know, I'm not sure what Anthony feels about this. I think it's very important to explore that personal versus, you know, professional dynamic in Michael's life.
You know, this is a person who was from a very, very early age raised to be a performer. And I think that in interview after interview that at least I've seen, read, heard from Michael, you know, he would talk about his discomfort off stage or not in front of the camera or when he was not performing.
Even in his early 20s, when "Thriller" -- when he was at his apex, you would see him, and he'd talk to someone, and he'd say, Yes, you know, this is where I'm most comfortable. And when I'm not here, everything just doesn't feel right.
So I think he was a child not just star, but superstar, and he grew up around stars. And it was Motown, and then it was Jackson 5, and then it was, you know, solo career. And that's -- I don't envy anyone of that caliber in that position. The pressure and the stress is tremendous.
So, you know, and the most hardcore fans, I believe, always had that kind of deep-seated understanding, maybe, about Michael as a person versus Michael as, you know, the sort of sacrificial pop star lamb.
'A lost childhood'
JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony DeCurtis, what would you add to that?
ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well, I would say that, you know, there's also -- Michael has written about, spoken about, you know, suffering physical abuse in his family as a child, a lost childhood as a result of some of the things we just heard about.
Clearly, you know, at the age of 10, I mean, we can all smile looking at Michael perform when he was 10, but, you know, there were a lot of responsibilities along with that and a childhood that disappeared.
And I think for Michael, I mean, the bigger he got, in a certain sense, the larger the void within him got. I mean, I think, like a lot of people, the same things that made him great -- his ability to transcend race and to shatter boundaries -- ultimately became something that made him seem so nebulous a figure, you know, so that you would look at him as an adult and say, "Well, this person sort of looks black and sort of looks white, sort of looks male, but also looks female, looks young, but also looks old."
Finally it became hard for people to connect with him. The same ability to erase boundaries and characteristics damaged him. It was as if there was a void in him somehow. And the bigger he got, the bigger that got, it took more to fill it. And I think that was part of what -- part of Michael's tragedy, really.
Jackson's musical influence
JEFFREY BROWN: Garth Trinidad, let's close by looking just at his influence. We talked a little bit about where he, who he learned from. You work with younger performers now. Where do you see Michael Jackson today?
GARTH TRINIDAD: You know, I think that you can see Michael everywhere, even in some of the so-called, you know, rap music, et cetera. It's really difficult not to see his influence.
I think that, you know, for the young people watching that may not have made the connection yet or don't know, you want to pay attention to, you know, artists like Justin Timberlake and, you know, Britney Spears and Usher, of course, the Neptunes, and, you know, what Pharrell has been doing. I mean, you know, even some of the sort of recent R&B explorations by artists like Snoop Dogg, I mean, you see Michael Jackson in all of that. And I think his influence is -- you know, it's just there...
JEFFREY BROWN: And a real -- I'm sorry, a real brief last word from Anthony DeCurtis. Where do you see him?
ANTHONY DECURTIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I would emphatically endorse all of that.
I mean, Michael Jackson's influence in popular music is like talking about the sun or the air, you know? It's so pervasive that to point out even specific examples of it is almost hard. It's everybody.
You know, it's certainly all of those artists. And, you know, anybody who is attempting to break those boundaries and make pop music something that everyone can really get gripped by, you know, owes a debt to Michael Jackson.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Anthony DeCurtis and Garth Trinidad, thank you both very much.
ANTHONY DECURTIS: Thank you.
GARTH TRINIDAD: Thank you.