The Most Famous Four Seconds in History

Barely a year on, is Michael Jackson’s legacy slipping already?

Written as a Facebook article in the days after his death in June 2009.  reprinted in “goodbye, Billie Jean: the meaning of Michael Jackson.

The Most Famous Four Seconds in Pop History

by Russell Bowers
Fred Astaire called him the best dancer he’d ever seen.Stephen Spielberg described him as a “deer in the middle of a forest fire.”

As a child, Chicago playwright, Bonnie Greer, remembered seeing a a four year old Michael Jackson appearing on Ed Sullivan, dancing in a way that didn’t just imitate the moves of a James Brown, but improved on them.

It was clear that as The Jackson 5 progressed as a musical act, that it was Michael who was the star. Starting as a comparison to Donny Osmond and his family act, Jackson leapt beyond all comparisons in a way few saw coming.

Jackson’s musical lineage can be traced from his “Thriller” producer, the legendary Quincy Jones, who mentored with Ray Charles and shaped albums for Miles Davis.  “Thriller” was SEVEN singles deep (of a total of 9 songs on the record) when I finally got around to getting a copy on cassette at the Avalon Mall Woolco in 1984. Just recently, I bought a 25th Anniversary re-issue and the CD lays bare the incredible production and catchiness of those songs.

The defining moment of his career will probably always be at the Motown 25 celebration where he displayed the Moonwalk, a four-second dance move that had origins with Cab Calloway in the 1920’s, moving through the 1950’s tap dancing of Bill Bailey, refined by Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniels, and then capped off during Jackson’s iconic performance of “Billie Jean”.

I can’t help feeling a sense of regret that Jackson never left more on the record about his own feelings on the music, his process, and a few honest thoughts on the artistry.

In that respect, his legacy will be as hotly debated as that of Elvis Presley. Presley and Jackson stand as twin towers of popular music yet both victims of their own excess, taken before their time, leaving blank that period of self-reflection that many artists eventually get around to.

It’s hard to know whether his series of upcoming London concerts would have re-invigorated his career. His re-invention would come through his own design, so anyone who had written him off as irrelevant would likely not have seen anything to sway the mind.

It wouldn’t be like the rejuvenation of Johnny Cash under the watch of Rick Rubin, or John Travolta’s re-branding at the hands of Quentin Tarantino.

Jackson, the ultimate man-child, did not seem to be one who would trust his career to anyone other than his whim and misguided self-image.

It’s hard to comprehend that there was not one corner of the Earth where he could go to disappear or find solitude. Even Bollywood films of the last 25 years were transformed by the influence of his music videos for “Thriller” and “Bad”.

Time will sort out his legacy. I’m sure we’ll be seeing many years of Jackson “insiders” with tell-all accounts of Neverland. But I do remain hopeful that some level of truth will come to the fore on his idiosyncrasies and that eventually, he will be best remembered for his impact on music history.

No one remembers the mess that surrounded the final years of Judy Garland’s life which ended 40 years ago this week. Few recall how John Lennon openly imitated people with Down Syndrome as an indictment of the Beatle fanbase in the mid-sixties.

Yet, Ike Turner is not remembered a pioneer who recorded the very first rock & roll song, “Rocket 88.” And Phil Spector’s legacy will be forever footnoted as a life that ended in prison after a murder conviction.

Speculation and beliefs abound over his relationship and potential interference in the lives of children and their families, and that will not dissipate soon, however the fact that no court or authority was ever able to definitively account for expressively illegal abuse leaves the issue unresolved. His own admission of sleep overs with young boys paints a picture of a man who was wildly naive, indulged and entitled.

Perhaps a small sliver of how seriously we should take some of Michael Jackson’s public stunts lies in one account that has come forward in the hours following his death.

A speech-writer for Jackson, Jonathan Margolis, told BBC Radio that some of the singer’s actions were attempts to create an air of mystery around him. One of those things was the period he spent wearing a face mask when he appeared in public (clearly Jackson was also ahead of the curve on Swine Flu). Margolis said that in the months he worked with Jackson he never saw the mask once in private. However, when getting out of a car one day, the mask suddenly appeared to Margolis’ great surprise. Jackson turned to his speech writer and said “Razzle dazzle ’em.”

He did that.