Little Michael Jackson. There’s something about the sight of him, and especially about his voice, that makes me unbelievably hopeful and almost unspeakably sad at the same time. Now that we know about Jackson’s tyrannical father, the self-loathing that led him to destroy his face with plastic surgery, his two strange marriages and divorces, and the accusations of child molestation leveled against him, it is easy to say in hindsight that there was something knowing and sad about his delivery on those Motown hits of the ‘70s.
Hopefully, appreciating Michael Jackson’s early work, which was admittedly saccharine at times, won’t be seen as rewriting musical history. Such critical revisionism is best exemplified by the case of Karen Carpenter, whose music, once seen as the epitome of sentimentality and commercialism, has been reevaluated and more appreciated (as her vocals are now described as “melancholy” or “tragic”) since her death from anorexia. This critic, for one, can attest to recognizing this tragic quality in Jackson as far back as the Thriller days, even before the stories about oxygen chambers and the Elephant Man’s bones began to circulate.
A much happier Jackson story, and one of my favorites, is that, before recording the first Jackson 5 single, “I Want You Back”, the ten-year-old asked one of his brothers what the lyrics meant. The reply was not to worry about it; just sing it like you mean it. This philosophy seems to have guided Jackson’s entire Motown career. He was forced to play the part of an adult, both by enduring a demanding career and by singing songs that bore little relation to the average kid’s life, and he did it with a grace that is hard not to admire.
For some reason, whether because he was a sharp kid who quickly “got” what he was singing about, or because he was just damn good at faking it, Michael Jackson pulled it off. His Motown hits, both solo and with the J5, are dazzling examples of his technical range and emotional depth as a singer. This kid had more going on when he was twelve years old than most vocalists do by the time they’re fifty.
Want proof? Just check out Jackson’s entry in “The Millennium Collection” series. His vocals on “Got To Be There”, “Rockin’ Robin”, “Ben”, and “Happy” are nothing short of gorgeous, and lesser-known songs like “Music and Me” are gems waiting to be rediscovered. The short, budget format of this series sometimes shortchanges artists by omitting key tracks, but it’s the ideal setting for Jackson, who, as a latecomer to Motown, suffered from sub-par material as the label lost its focus. There are just enough highlights on The Best of Michael Jackson to convince you of his brilliance, and few examples of the pap that prompted him to leave Motown and make history on his own. Any fan should be happy to own this collection.