Growing up in the Detroit area in the '60s and '70s, I had the good fortune of being carpet bombed with Motown songs on a daily basis by the local radio, the Jackson 5 prominent in the mix. Whenever a J5 tune would air, you couldn't help feeling jolts of excitement as the Gary, Indiana, brothers translated Motown's sterling stable of composers' ideas into audio dynamite. Michael's voice radiated out of the tightly choreographed sonic genius with a soulfulness and power that belied his diminutive stature. His phrasing and rhythmic delivery were pure brilliance, a natural resource that invaded minds and activated limbs with utter joy. It split the difference between James Brown and Stevie Wonder, sans the carnality of either. Songs like "ABC," "The Love You Save," "I Want You Back," and "Rockin' Robin" propelled me speedily through entire pre-adolescent days. I felt incredibly lucky to have such a beneficial stimulant as a lad.
Although he was the youngest Jackson in the group, Michael was blessed with an outsized vocal presence and incomparable charm. His was the sort of superstarhood that people recognized instantly. That he had Motown's paradigm-shifting, hit-making machinery behind him resulted in a surfeit of immortal classics, some of the greatest pop music ever. Irrepressible youthful insouciance (probably illusory, as Michael's father Joseph reportedly bullied him), plus supernatural talent, plus calculating record-biz pros, equals a bursting catalog of bubbly dance hits and touching ballads that should be inducing smiles until the sun explodes.
Michael went solo at age 13, made some outstanding disco-soul jams with the Jacksons ("Can You Feel It," "Shake Your Body [Down to the Ground]," "Blame it on the Boogie"), and then hit his peak with 1979's Off the Wall. Aided by the arranging, producing, and writing skills of Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton, Michael inhabited a clutch of down-, mid-, and up-tempo compositions with cheetah-like gracefulness. It was his last LP with his original face intact.
Of course, Thriller would go on to conquer the omniverse and become as ubiquitous as McDonald's commercials. It's admittedly a (flawed) masterpiece, but serious overexposure has dimmed its luster. Plus, it contains the second worst song of all time: "The Girl Is Mine." Off the Wall benefits from MJ still being somewhat hungry and not yet obsessed with polishing his King of Pop crown.
Paradoxically, Michael became less believable as he aged. He seemed to be playing a "human being" with "emotions" in his songs rather than really occupying them. The lyrics almost always rang hollow, especially when he attempted to emulate a tough guy. This was overcompensation at its worst. "Bad"? "Dangerous"? "Smooth Criminal"? Ooh, don't hurt us, Mikey—please. When he was deadly earnest, which was often, Michael couldn't help ladling on the saccharine and platitudes. Do you crave to hear "Heal the World" and "You Are Not Alone" anymore? You must have vats of insulin at your disposal.
With each revelation regarding his, uh, idiosyncratic personal life and peccadilloes, Michael's late-era music appeared to be more damage control/reflexive defensiveness than art. Each album and tour was like an expensive PR campaign erected to shore up MJ's rep. In a nutshell, the more eccentric/neurotic, stranger-looking, and whiter Michael became, the less appealing his music sounded.
It's likely a function of nostalgia, and hearing Michael during a mostly carefree childhood, but even as the decades passed, my love of the Jackson 5, the Jacksons, and Michael's solo work (through Thriller) never really diminished. Honestly, only the most soul-puckered curmudgeon could deny the pneumatic ebullience of J5 Michael and the silky technician of prime solo years Jacko.
In retrospect, though, it's ironic that the artist I consider to be the poster (man)child of extreme asexuality helped to stoke my libido so furiously 30 years ago. Back in the summer of '79, a freaky 16-year-old chica gallantly relieved me of my innocence. Throughout that muggy season, Michael's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" dominated Detroit-area radio and fired my sexual imagination like nothing else on the airwaves, as my first real girlfriend and I did our damnedest to ensure my innocence never returned. At that point, as a 17-year-old, I'd never heard such an infectiously lubricious song. It seemed to swoon and thrust with equal fervor, mirroring teenage hormonal surges with breathless accuracy. And its title offered advice that we heeded as if decreed by Dionysus.
We spent our nights driving around suburban Detroit looking for secluded spots to get our groove on. Michael's "oohh"s complemented ours in perfect harmony. The girl is not mine anymore, but "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" always will be.