Michael Jackson: The ultimate song and dance man

Perhaps he couldn't lay claim to genius. But he was, quite simply, an incredible entertainer, who redefined pop stardom and whose influence remains impossible to ignore. Simon Price pays tribute

Late last Thursday night, amid the chaos and chatter of the midnight vigil which arose on the internet as news of Michael Jackson's death began to break, I bid the online world goodnight by pleading for a moment's calm. My plea, directed at anyone who happened to be reading, was, with the greatest respect, to shut up for a moment. I begged them to mute the television, put down the phone, stop typing, be still for a minute, and just listen to something I'd found on YouTube.

It was a vocal track of the young Michael singing "I'll Be There" a capella, accompanied by footage of The Jackson 5 performing the song on The Jim Nabors Hour, an American variety show, in 1970. Have a look: it may still be there, unless some joyless Universal Music drone has had it removed.

"I'll Be There" is a song which, in even the happiest of times, can send shivers through your body. On a night like Thursday, as an oasis of beauty among all the ugliness and ghoulishness, it had the power to spear through your skin, rip out your heart and nail it to the wall.

At the age of nine, 10, 11, Michael Jackson had the uncanny ability to deliver vocal performances which combined the purity of an infant with the emotional experience of an adult. At the turn of the 1970s, when The Jackson 5 were turning out single after killer single for the Motown label, nobody knew the price he'd already paid behind the scenes, sacrificing his childhood in Gary, Indiana, at the hands of a harsh and abusive father.

And yet... what utter joy The Jackson 5 produced in those early years under the wing of The Corporation team, with their own cartoon series to spread their popularity: "ABC", "The Love You Save", and every DJ's emergency floor-filler, "I Want You Back". Michael, although the youngest, had emerged as lead singer. Berry Gordy knew the kid has something special, and soon he was a solo artist, putting down extraordinarily mature vocals on cuts such as the chart-topping "Got to Be There", Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine", Stevie Wonder's "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day", the gorgeous ballad "One Day in Your Life", and even on trite trash such as "Rockin' Robin" and "Ben" (an improbably moving paean to a pet rat).

In 1976, The Jacksons, now microphone-headed teenagers, jumped ship to CBS/Epic minus Motown loyalist Jermaine but plus Randy, leapt aboard the disco train with considerable success ("Blame It on the Boogie", "Shake Your Body Down") and looked as if they were having all the fun in the world.

It wasn't long, though, before Michael embarked on a second solo career. Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones (whom Jackson had met on The Wiz, Motown's ill-fated Wizard of Oz remake) with considerable songwriting assistance from Heatwave's Rod Temperton, is one of the great disco albums, ranging from the effortlessly sublime soul swing of "Rock with You" to the heartbreaking "She's Out of My Life". Its impossibly funky title track is an anthem to the social liberation of the disco movement, and Michael's imperative to "leave your 9 to 5 upon the shelf and just enjoy yourself" sounds remarkably authentic coming from someone who had never done a normal day's work in his life.

But it's the lead-off single that really stands out. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" begins with the sound of Michael chatting away to himself, sotto voce, as though completely unaware of the listener's intrusive attentions, about how the force ... has got a lot of power ... and it makes him feel like ... oooh!!! before the whole thing erupts into mirrorball euphoria, with Jackson's trademark shrieks, whoops and chirrups imitated so annoyingly by the likes of Avid Merrion. "Don't Stop..." is in with a serious shout (and a scream, and a handclap, and a pirouette) of being the greatest piece of pop music ever recorded.

The Michael of Off the Wall sounds, and looks, like a healthy, carefree, playful young man, and is unavoidably poignant in the light of what we know would happen next.

With the Thriller album of 1982, Michael Jackson didn't only become the biggest pop star in the world. He redefined what bigness meant for a pop star. He achieved this, to a large extent, by being in the right place at the right time. The video for paternity-suit drama "Billie Jean" arrived just when MTV was making it possible for a star to cover the globe without the hard slog of touring, and at a time when globalisation of American capitalism made worldwide homogeneity of markets a desirable thing. Corporations such as Pepsi needed a face who could appeal across races and nations, and Michael Jackson fitted the bill. Thriller made him the best-known black man since Muhammad Ali, and arguably the most famous human on the planet.

Which isn't to say that it isn't a fine record on its own merits. The percussive epic "Wanna Be Startin' Something" exudes sheer exuberance, and "Human Nature" is a beautiful piece of sophisticated metropolitan soul. Jones and Temperton knew what they were doing: "Beat It", cannily, crossed over with the rock market thanks to its Eddie Van Halen riff, and "Thriller" itself redefined music video. I'm just the right age to remember sneaking into clubs and seeing the place stop dead when the 15-minute zombie flick was played on the big screen.

What Jackson wasn't, in the context of 1980s megapop, is a "genius". Unlike Prince or Springsteen, he wasn't a self-sufficient auteur, and unlike Madonna, he didn't create his persona through sheer force of will. What he was – and there's no shame in this – was an incredible entertainer, an untouchable song and dance man.

Speaking of which, even his dance routines weren't self-generated. He may have tried to copyright the moonwalk as his own, but anyone with a sharp memory knows it was actually premiered by Jeffrey Daniel of Shalamar on Soul Train.

Post-Thriller, the Jacksons temporarily reunited, most memorably with the video for "Can You Feel It", on which the brothers, 100ft tall, stood atop the Golden Gate bridge, scattering fairy dust on the mere mortals below. Less celebrated, but equally great, is the rock-funk scorcher they recorded with Mick Jagger, "State of Shock". Michael relished these celebrity duets, and his oft-overlooked Paul McCartney collaboration, "Say Say Say", features one of his most electrifying vocals.

The unimaginable wealth which Thriller brought him led to Jackson's mad emperor phase: the Neverland ranch, the chimpanzee companion, the diamond glove, the Moonwalker movie, the oxygen tent, the insistence on the soubriquet "King of Pop", the facial surgery.

Five years passed before Jackson released another album. By the time of Bad, whose title track had a leather-clad Michael playing an unconvincing street thug in the video, the singer's skin was very, very white (due, it was claimed to widespread scepticism, to the condition vitiligo). Despite some superb tracks – notably the breathless urgency of "Smooth Criminal" – the writing was, like the album's pseudo-graffiti logo, on the wall.

As Michael's life continued to spiral out of control, from gruesome photos in which he appeared to have no nose to the scandal involving his strange relationship with 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, so the quality of his music deteriorated.

He was still capable of putting out the occasional great record, such as "Black or White" from 1991's Dangerous, which also featured the minimal, robotic New Jack Swing of the Teddy Riley-penned "In the Closet", but Jackson's 1990s were defined by the likes of the schmaltzy "Heal the World" and the pompous "Earth Song".

His antics became increasingly bizarre, from arriving on stage via jetpack to presenting himself as a Christ figure at the Brits (prompting Jarvis Cocker's legendary stage invasion) to the giant effigy of himself he floated down the Thames to promote 1995's half-hits, half-new album HIStory. A second child-abuse scandal broke out in the new millennium, exacerbated by Martin Bashir's documentary and by Jackson, unfathomably, dangling his baby out of a Berlin hotel window.

Although he was never found guilty, Jackson's reputation never recovered among the "no smoke without fire" brigade. Much of which comes down to a simple failure of imagination. What if Michael really did pay off the Chandlers because he just wanted the whole thing to go away? What if Michael really was so innocent he merely wanted to recapture his childhood with those sleepovers? What if, when he told Bashir "when I look at children's faces, I see God", he was being sincere? What if, in short, Michael really was – to quote his own "Thriller" video – "not like other guys"?

The lynch mob had made up its mind, and Jackson's audience had shrunk. And, harsh as it may sound, this was probably no great loss: 2001's Invincible doesn't suggest the world has lost a productive talent, and it's perhaps for the best that we never found out what the This Is It tour would be like.

Nevertheless, Michael Jackson is still loved for what he once was, his influence impossible to ignore. Right now, the more speculation and scum-slinging I hear, the more I feel drawn back to the purity of that four-decades-old a capella vocal. "You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back/Where there is love, I'll be there..." It's hard to assimilate the knowledge that, from this moment on, he won't.

Albums: What the critics said

Off the Wall

Rolling Stone

Stephen Holden

1 November 1979

A slick, sophisticated R&B-pop showcase with a definite disco slant, Off the Wall presents Michael Jackson as the Stevie Wonder of the Eighties... A triumph for producer Quincy Jones as well as for Michael Jackson, Off the Wall represents discofied post-Motown glamour at its classiest.

Thriller

Rolling Stone

Christopher Connelly

28 January 1983

Jackson's new attitude gives Thriller a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer ... The fiery conviction of Thriller offers hope that Michael is still a long way away from succumbing to the lures of Vegas. Thriller may not be Michael Jackson's 1999, but it's a gorgeous, snappy step in the right direction.

Bad

Rolling Stone

Davitt Sigerson

22 October 1987

Bad is the work of a gifted singer-songwriter with his own skewed aesthetic agenda and the technical prowess to pursue it... Comparisons with Thriller are unimportant, except this one: even without a milestone recording like "Billie Jean", Bad is a better record.

Dangerous

The Independent

21 November 1991

Andy Gill

Dangerous is anything but... the formula remains wearily familiar – a different kind of familiar, maybe, but all that's really altered is the beats, pounding away in the foreground while variations of the same keyboard-funk sound heard on any number of "urban contemporary'' albums noodle away in the background... Unable to face the fresh challenges of the Nineties, Jackson reiterates the clichés that served him so well in the Eighties.

Invincible

The Independent on Sunday

28 October 2001

Simon Price

Jackson's first new album in a guinea-pig's lifetime is mainly co-written by Jacko himself, and its best moments are the uptempo ones. The most arresting moments are the intro and outro to "Speechless". The undisputed low point, however, is the syrupy "The Lost Children".

A life in numbers

$400m The reported size of Jackson's debt at the time of his death

14 Doves set loose by a fan in 2005 when Jackson was acquitted of child molestation

$50m How much the first 10 shows at the O2 this year would have made him, according to Randy Phillips of AEG Live

39 Number of charities he supported in 2000, earning him a Guinness World Record

150 Age he once predicted he would live to if he took precautions with his body, which included sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber

$47.5m Reported amount he paid for rights to The Beatles' back catalogue in 1985

$12m Annual income from royalties

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