Halloween approaches once again and three decades later ‘Thriller’ remains as the untouchable artistic embodiment of the festival.
Christmas pop hits are goldmines for their creators, with their annual dusting off guaranteeing them a financial windfall. However, there are hundreds of artists competing for airplay at the time.
At Halloween, Michael is more-or-less the sole contender for royalties.
The decision to change the theme of the love song ‘Starlight’ into what the world now recognises as ‘Thriller’ was a stroke of visionary genius. The song and video ensured Michael’s relevance in the pop charts forever.
It was also during this time that Michael was becoming a businessman, with his shrewd acquisition of the ATV catalogue following soon afterwards. ‘Beat It’ from the Thriller album has been interpreted as a cry against racism, and the opening line “They told him “Don’t you ever come around here / Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear”” could easily be construed as a reference to the obstacles Michael was facing upon his foray into the business side of music.
As the singer Rihanna recently lamented “…when I started to experience the difference [in attitudes towards her race] – it was mostly when I wanted to do business deals.”
Another example of Michael as the artistic visionary came with ‘Black Or White’. Of course, the theme of racism in the track is overt, but there also exists a subtext in which Michael calls out the racist press. Michael bemoans his having to explicitly inform the “Saturday Sun” of his achievements and his status as the King of Pop, as well as proclaiming that he “ain’t scared of no sheets” – a dual reference to the KKK and newsprint media.
Indeed, the evidence is there for all to see – in black and white.
In order to mock him, said newspapers perennially compile comparison pictures that demonstrate Michael’s physical transformation over the course of his life. They are Ripley-esque in their intent to intrigue the prejudicial masses and in their disregard for the dignity of their subject.
However, what these montages actually demonstrate is the irrelevance of a person’s physicality.
This was visionary genius of a different, more poignant sort.
When looked upon with hindsight by the generations growing up now, the Michael of the Jackson 5 and the Michael of 2009 will be the same person, and the physical transformation will be irrelevant. He will simply be Michael Jackson.
Future generations will understand that Michael’s eccentricities should be celebrated, not scorned. So what if he was obsessed with childhood? Kept mannequins to ward off loneliness? Sculpted his visage? Who cares how his social anxieties manifested?
I mean… what do you want from your genius? Genius both suffers and revels in its being ostracised from close-minded society: the same society that relies on such genius to escape the predictable humdrum of their daily lives.
Frank Dileo exacerbated the extent of Michael’s eccentricities and harnessed them for promotional purposes. This strategic oddball manufacturing was intensely successful. But Dileo’s tactics spectacularly backfired. The world thought Michael too bizarre. So his vulnerabilities of loneliness and unique affinity with children were used against him. With ruthless malevolence. By forces hell-bent on acquiring that ATV catalogue.
Michael bought the catalogue in 1985. It cost him $47.5 million. Today it is worth $2 billion. He fought tooth-and-nail to keep it. It was his prized possession – the totemic culmination of his extraordinary rags-to-riches adventure. Although its phenomenal value weighed heavy, Michael was nevertheless stolid in his determination to retain it.
Which is why, for the third year running, Michael has topped Forbes’ list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities. By quite some margin. In fact, if Michael were still alive, he would have made fifth place on the equivalent list for living celebrities.
Meanwhile, Michael’s remains lie in an unmarked grave.
The horror inherent in ‘Thriller’ is harmless, tales-at-midnight fun. The true horrors exist in the insidious souls Michael encountered upon daring to enter the domain of the devils in suits.
Who continue to prise away in their efforts to possess the catalogue.
But supporters of Michael’s artistic and humanitarian legacy are many and credible. His mission is intact and his vision persists.
Janet Jackson’s latest album – ‘Unbreakable’ – effervesces with tributes to her late brother: in ‘The Great Forever’ her voice is pitch-shifted to resemble Michael’s; during the song ‘No Sleeep’, Michael’s song ‘Butterflies’ is referenced; whilst in ‘Broken Hearts Heal’ she reminisces about their shared childhood. The song also features a sample from ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’.
Though perhaps the song ‘After You Fall’ contains the clearest guide to her intentions, with its lyric,
“After you fall / Who’s gonna be there / With you through all / Who’s gonna care for you / After it all / Who’s gonna be there / After you fall / I will”.
And so will we.
Italian translation available here: http://amzn.to/1O85aRV