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He came. He moonwalked. He conquered.
By John Legend
You can't appreciate music and not appreciate Michael Jackson. If you listen to the recordings he made as a kid, his pipes were truly incredible. The precision clarity and extent of the range he could sing at, without changing his vocal style, is just incredible. To be able to reach those high notes... He wasn't just good for a kid; he was amazingly good for anybody. Watch those early Jacksons Variety Shows when he sings Rockin' Robin, and you'll see he had a gift. No one had ever sung like that before. And no one has been able to sing like that since.
For anyone who grew up in the '80s, Michael Jackson was the definitive star of our childhoods. Obviously Thriller was a monstruous hit, one of the biggest ever. But I feel, creatively, Off The Wall has the edge - Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, Rock With You and Off The Wall itself, I think that's such a beautiful song. Off The Wall smashed records [Jackson became the first artist to score four US Top 10 singles from the same album], but at the time Michael said he wasn't satisfied. He knew he could do better. That was one of the things that was new with him: ambition. His family clearly had something to do with that â€“ you hear reports about his father being a tough guy. I don't know wether his family worked him too hard. We'll leave that up for debate. First off, there was clearly something in his genes that made him have a voice like that, but the family obviously cultivated what was there. I understand that. I understand what it's like to grow up and be surrounded by it: I come from a very musical family, too. To grow up and be surrounded by other musicians and people who love music; that can have a big effect on a child.
The other way Michael changed music was with his videos. Throughout the '80s, his videos were events. He was one of the first artists where network television would break away from regular programming to premiere a video. I was having dinner with Kanye West the other night and we were exactly talking about that fact: it was a television event when his videos came out. And, of course, it really made MTV. Michael was of the first ones that opened up the doors for black performers. You have to remember that MTV was a rock channel up to that point. Their philosophy was to treat it like a radio station, where you focus on one format and you get the best of that format. Michael opened the door with Thriller and then rap started to make its way onto MTV. Then MTV became more of a multi-format station for the whole younger generation. But for a while, Michael was all we had on MTV. Videos have really been in decline ever since. The era of the super-mega-budget video, where people justified spending lots of money, that's pretty much over today.
Michael was one of the first pop stars to really understand how to turn himself into a unique brand. It would have been enough for him to sing those songs, but then he delivered them in such a unique way: with amazing dance routines. Michael will always be known as one of the greatest dancers in pop history. When he did Billie Jean on the Motown TV Show [1983's Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, the first public performance of "the moonwalk"], that was just incredible. Speaking as someone who can't dance himself, I always respected and envied that. It's part of your job as an entertainer to work out how to connect with your audience, and no one connected like Michael.
But it seems like the set of circumstances [that gave us Jackson] won't ever happen again. The way the media is now, I don't think the world's attention will ever be focused on one artist again. Plus, he was an experiment of one; a sample size of one. Unless you're there yourself, no one can know what it feels like to be, from a child, one of the most important and watched individuals in the world. I don't want to psychoanalyse him - I don't really know him well to do that - but you can only imagine what impact growing up in the public eye like that is going to have on you.
Today I think his music still holds up. You can play Thriller at a party and people get excited. You hear him sampled a lot and heâ€™s influenced quite a few male pop stars - Justin Timberlake, Usher and Ne-Yo, you can see it in their writing and their choreography, that Michael Jackson '80s influence. But his personal life has tarnished his legacy. It's natural that people don't separate them. He's not held in the same positive light and I don't think that will ever change. Every artist has their ups and downs. But I think being accused of molesting children is a little bit extreme, even for a star.
I would love to see him come back. You know, Prince has done [a residency in Las] Vegas, as has Céline Dion and Toni Braxton and Elton John â€“ so why not? You never know. But people really have to be in the right frame of mind for that. To want it and to want to do all the work, the promotion that's involved. And I don't know if he wants to do it anymore. We'll see.
John Legend is a five-times Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and pianist.
© Q Magazine
Source: Q / MJ data bank
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