MTV's Jackie Robinson
The Daily Beast’s Touré on a lifetime of listening to Michael, the King of Pop who reigned over black and white radio stations alike, and inspired a generation of musicians.
One of the first concerts I ever went to was Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. I happened to be in Paris but it would’ve been the same show anywhere. He was doing the paramilitary fashion thing with the jacket that made me think he was the general-dictator of some colorful fictional country. And he was disappearing and reappearing in some other part of the arena far too fast to have run, which I immediately noticed as his David Copperfield magician thing. And then he sang about humans loving humans and caring about the children and he touched us—that was his sensitive thing. And that day I realized Michael Jackson was a really complete artist. Not just a singer, songwriter, producer, dancer, choreographer (uh yeah, he created his own vocabulary), but also a man who could make soul, disco, rock, and pop, and a man who could sing with rage at injustice or with tissue-fragile sensitivity or with a soulful gotta-dance groove. His oeuvre is not just sonically complete, it’s emotionally complete. That’s what’s so satisfying about having a musical relationship with Michael Jackson: eventually he’ll touch every part of you.
When Thriller came out, it broke the radio color barrier: Black and white stations played its singles until MTV, which had not previously played videos by black artists, had to play Michael.
My favorite Michael Jackson album is Off The Wall, the best disco album ever and one of the best albums ever. It’s timeless and beautiful and syrupy smooth and energizing all at the same time. You can dance to it and chill to it. It makes me see colors—beiges and light creamy browns. It’s about love and dancing and exuberance for life. It’s sexual without being Princely—deliciously crude. There are such clean, pure, bright, grooves. And his voice sounds so young and explosive and perfect like that one colt in a million that runs 100 miles an hour for fun.
My second favorite MJ album is Dangerous. Where Off The Wall is fresh, young Michael, this is latter Mike. He’s much funkier, more dramatic, and a very cinematic nature to the grooves. I hear the tracks and see videos. And there’s a slight bit more grit and age in his voice that I love.
Thriller is my third favorite. It’s an amazing sonic experience. I like Off the Wall and Dangerous better, but I can’t help but think about Thriller’s massive socio-cultural impact. Rev. Al Sharpton referred to Michael as a pre-Obama Obama-esque figure in that he’s a black man who knows how to make millions of blacks and whites fall in love with him. He’s an integrationist, a racial unifier. He made two pop songs as overtly about race as anyone’s ever made: Say Say Say with Paul McCartney and Black or White. He was a Motown guy, after all. But he left Berry Gordy’s house and went to CBS/Epic, a big-time label, to forge an adult solo career. CBS pushed his record as hard as they did their huge white stars and Off the Wall was a huge crossover success: Young Michael was established as not an artist for black fans but an artist for everyone at a time when that was rare. Four years later, when Thriller came out, it broke the radio color barrier: Black and white stations played its singles until MTV, which had not previously played videos by black artists, had to play Michael. For a while, they played Thriller every hour at the top of the hour. Back then he was MTV’s Jackie Robinson. And like #42 he went on to become a legend: Michael’s video oeuvre is so amazing, creative, brilliant, ambitious, cinematic, and so far beyond that of any other artist ever that MTV named one of its awards the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Kind of like how baseball has retired Robinson’s number on all teams.
Jay-Z, a hero to many, once told me that Michael was a hero to him. When he was a kid, little Shawn would play-sing with his brother and sisters with Shawn as Michael and the rest as the Jacksons. How many of us did that? When Jay was a star, Michael Jackson called him. He was awestruck. “I was talkin’ to him on the phone,” Jay told me in 2003, “and he was talkin’ about Hard Knock Life, and he was like, ‘You was just so in pocket on that record, landin’ right on the beat. Incredible.’ I'm like, ‘Thanks.’ But I'm lookin’ at the phone like, ‘What? Stop playin’, man!' Mike was a superhero when I was a kid. Him wanting to work with me, period, was bananas!” I say that to say this: Michael Jackson was a star among stars. He was a star to stars. But of course he was: Michael was a megastar almost his entire life.
Now that he’s gone, I want to listen to his music and think about all those great songs and his cultural impact and leave the weird parts of the story behind. There were many eccentricities and other things in the Michael Jackson story but he was a tortured soul beyond what we knew and many of the reasons for that weren’t his fault. I’m leaving the “Wacko Jacko” meme behind and liberating his peerless, timeless music from it. His glittering legacy has grown caricaturized over the past decades, but before all that he’d cemented his place as one of the greatest singers and most astounding entertainers of all time. I’m going to remember Michael Jackson that way.
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City , and The Portable Promised Land . He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times.