The MJ Top Ten Tribute

[5 July 2009]

By Diepiriye Kuku

The ultimate tribute. A collection of Jackson tracks—ballads and beats—offered by those who would best immortalize his name.

M.J. Ballads

“Will You Be There” - Whitney Houston.
Michael starts deep and uses his belting range for this song. Few artists can belt it out like Whitney, so this is a natural fit.

“Maria (You Were the Only One)” - Chaka Khan.

“Got To Be There” - Fantasia.
Just because this girl can scream. But no remixes, and by all means gotta keep those Conga drums.

“Man in the Mirror” - Jill Scott.
It sounds like a song that this progressive diva could have written for herself.

“Human Nature” - Maxwell.
This song deserves a genuine modern crooner to tease the ladies. Having seen Michael perform this song in person (circa 1987, Kentucky Fairgrounds), the ladies and effete gents will go crazy once again. The song is OK in its recorded version and ripe for sampling (thanks SWV), but “Human Nature” is truly a song meant for live performance.

“Earth Song” - Erykah Badu.
Imagine Badu screaming as she does!

“Heal the World” - Lionel Richie.
Lower Lip Lionel is a real crooner from the old South. Imagine this man wrapping his thick lower lip around these socially conscious lyrics of humanity, humanness and humaneness, aka the African concept of Ubuntu.

“The Lady in My Life” - Al Green.
Just imagine the first line: “There’ll be no darkness tonight,” and all I hear is “Simply Beautiful”. Elsewise, Sade, Mariah, or Prince would do a fine job. Yet, if Prince were allowed to re-arrange this song in his own way (and not come up with a “Darling Nikki” remake), that would be ultra-fab!

“Baby Be Mine” - Patti LaBelle.
Patti’s a crooner, but she actually loves to funk it out in that Philly style. She could do this pop ballad right! See all those colored notes?!? Work Miss Lady Marmalade.

“I Wanna Be Where You Are” - Teena Marie.
Holla! And that’s way different than screaming.

“Butterflies” - Mariah Carey.
She’s the only icon who could do Michael’s falsetto range as well as those deeper chords. The boy was bad, so it’d take an equally talented composer to even read the music. She could even polish off the song in her trademark house-remix style.

“Liberian Girl” - Sade.
Not just that Sade and Michael Jackson are among the few popular artists to actually sing about an African person (and not the damn wildebeests or Serengeti), but her raspy voice could really bring this tune to life. Sade would probably slow it down more akin to the beat of “Jezebel” or “Is It a Crime” from her Lovers Live concert.

“Will You Be There” - Aretha Franklin.
The Queen of Soul would be quite at home with this entire chorus behind her and the chance to ad-lib through most of the song anyhow.

“Another Part of Me” - George Benson.
Indeed, George would have to make his own acoustic version, and might even pair up with Al Jarreau to make this pop song an unforgettable jazz ballad. Damn, imagine Michael sitting in the audience listening to one of his most infamous compositions. The song represented the height of Michael’s marketing mania. Disney marketed the tune in its 3D flick, Captain EO, shown exclusively in the Epcot Center theme park at DisneyWorld. This was the debut of the real co-branding capitalism. What Berry Gordy did for the Jackson 5 and their decisively cross-over success, Quincy and Michael Jackson did for brand “Michael”, complete with merchandising. Recall that Thriller, the best selling record of all time, released in 1982, while the Captain EO treatment of this song arrived in 1986, by which time Michael Jackson was firmly the King of Pop.

“The Girl is Mine” - Brandy and Monica.
Irony is entertaining and these two voices together are all that and a bag of chips.

“You Rock My World” - Christina Aguilera.
Girlfriend’s got the range, rhythm, and groove for any R&B ballad (remember how she brought the house down—hands down—with James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” at the 2007 Grammy’s?).

* * *

M.J. Beats

“Heartbreak Hotel” - Mary J. Blige.
It would just feel good to hear Mary rock this groovy beat.

“Beat It” - Prince.
It would be awesome to have Prince play the bass guitar as he shouted out, squashing the past rumors of a pop quarrel.

“Billie Jean” - En Vogue.
Indeed, they would have to get back together for this! They could also break out into a chorus of “Who’s Loving You”.

“Dirty Diana” - Tina Turner.
Undeniably, Tina rocks! And with that grimy rock guitar, Tina would be right at home, screaming, jamming, hollering, and mixing rock and funk as few artists could.

“Remember the Time” - Stevie Wonder.
This is a decent enough Motown-esque ballad that’s black enough for black folks, and trendy enough to be popular. But these are the Jacksons, so it’s cutting edge enough to be risqué. Not only was it this decisively androgynous figure’s first on-screen kiss, but this was a chocolate feast. Dancers, singers, ballers, callers, models and maniacs. Eddie Murphy, 2xM.J., a super model, plus Black Egyptians to boot. It’s just the sort of pop statement that Obama-favorite Stevie Wonder likes to make. Michael kissed a super-model and we all know about on-screen kisses with top models. George Michael did a similar thing to throw his gains at the industry while staying true to the fans, and their own needs for music making.

Furthermore, Stevie could break into “You Haven’t Done Nothing” from Fullfillingness First Finale, which polishes off with Stevie saying: “Jackson 5, say it one more ‘gain.” Then, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael would smoothly sing, “Do-do-wop. Do-do-wop”. “Sing it for your people”, Stevie shouted. “Stand up be counted”, he jived at Nixon. This was 1974.

Stevie always does an entire good ole Motown Review whenever he gets on stage. And anyway, fans at the tribute wouldn’t let him leave the stage after just one song. He bursts out into “All I Do”. Jermaine would come out and do Michael’s part (listen closely—that’s M.J. doing the do-wop for Stevie again). True to form, Stevie would change the lyrics: “I’m thinkin’, Michael. ‘Bout you, Michael!” Pausing to extend this interlude, Stevie would chant this line over and over, the crowd joining in. “Thinkin’, Michael. Give it to me Michael. Get on down. Just get on down. All I do is think about you Michael. Can you feel it right back?”

By the end, he, Stevie, me, you, the whole crowd would be in tears. But Jermaine would insist that this is a party for his brother, so Stevie responds with the chords for Jermaine’s song “Let’s Get Serious”. Fans wouldn’t remember seeing these two perform the songs they had worked on together and released back in 1980 on their respective albums. Then, the remaining brothers would come on stage with one of Michael’s nephews singing lead on “I Want You Back” and “ABC”. The rest of the Jacksons, Diana Ross, and then a whole bunch of other Motown folks would join on stage and sing “We Are the World”. You-know-who would be the first to grab the mike—no pun intended—and, finger combing her weave, would introduce “this next song,” as she loves to say, before going on and on lamenting over Michael, threatening to break out in sermon.

“Bad” - George Michael.
Who else could really pull of this gender-bender, or would say as convincingly, “Your butt is mine”?

“Dancing Machine” - Jennifer Lopez.
Well, J-Lo is a dancing machine.

“Smooth Criminal” - Madonna.
This could be all about the choreography, and since she started singing lessons for Evita, she might actually hit the notes, and could be induced to scream. I’d love to hear her try, at least.

“Wanna Be Startin Somethin’” - Paula Abdul and Manu Dibango.
For old time sakes, for real. This song debuted just before Abdul started choreographing with the Jacksons, so it’d be an interesting tribute to those who made her career. And Dibango shouldn’t have had to sue Michael for sampling his beat from the song “Soul Makossa”.

“In the Closet” - Justin Timberlake and Naomi Campbell.
Justin can hit the high notes on all those “He-he’s” and “Ooh’s” that marks M.J.’s signature style. As a modern carbon copy, Justin should be afforded the opportunity to pay homage to the artist who is apparently his greatest influence.

“Burn This Disco Out” - Jamiroquai.
JK can dance, and not just to someone else’s tightly choreographed steps; like Michael, he has taken his favorite artists as inspiration and developed his own style. Seeing this dude dance to a rhythmic Michael Jackson tune and crooning in his funky, groovy way would woo fans. “When You Gonna Learn”, “Blow Your Mind”, “Virtual Insanity”, “Little L”, “You Give Me Something”—all these songs are clearly influenced by Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. “Yeah, yeah, Have you heard the news today? Money’s on the menu in my favorite restaurant!”

“Thriller” - Janet Jackson (period).
Few noticed that it was Miss Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) who actually bridged Motown’s cross-over pop with His Purple Badness’ funky sound through her collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from Morris Day and the Time (remember Terry holding the mirror for Morris on stage?!). Beyond the groundbreaking video that altered the course of American pop music, preparing the scene for Janet herself, “Thriller” has one of the phattest baselines and funkiest riffs of any of Michael’s songs. This beat would take Janet back to her Control days, a true wet dream for her original fans.

“P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” - New Edition.
A decent pop song for a reigning boy band styled after the Jackson 5. Ralph Tresvant could work these high notes over as one of pop music’s few actual tenors.

“Working Day and Night” - Destiny’s Child.
As another high-energy song that would sound flat if not done right, this song demands young artists. Besides, this song is reminiscent of the feel of “Bills, Bills, Bills”, and the beat of “Bootylicious”.

“I Can’t Help It” - Alicia Keys.
Alicia being the artist she is, Keys might be given license to re-arrange this song, or at least break it down to a real soul ballad.

“Get on the Floor” - Femi Kuti.
Few understand the dialogue that Afrofunk has enjoyed with American funk and pop like Ethiopia’s Muluqèn Mèllèssè. The influence is undeniable, not least of which because many Afrofunk artists, like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, studied in the United States. Bang Bang Bang! Femi could even mix in his own hit during the break, exposing global artists to Afropop.

“Rock With You” - Toni Braxton.
This strong alto is just right for this. All right! All night!

“Dancing Machine” - Earth, Wind and Fire.
This beat sounds like a song that ‘the Elements’ might have recorded themselves. Philip Bailey’s infamous falsetto could match Michael’s range, while the group’s equally infamous horns and riffs would be a treat to bestow. Let me just thank them in advance.

“Say, Say, Say” - Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney.
Think “Do You Think I’m Sexy”! Rod’s got just enough soul to pull this off.

“The Way You Make Me Feel” - George Michael.
George would break it down “Outside”-style towards the end when Michael starts riffing. He’s not nearly the dancer Michael was. Yet, as a balladeer, George Michael would do the song justice. And us queers deserve more and more love songs! If he turns the opportunity down, then Justin Timberlake fits the image nearly as well.

“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” - Zap Mama.
Indeed, they could do it a capella if they wanted.

“Off the Wall” - Janet Jackson.
It’s all about Janet—she could work this song overtime. You know how Janet would break it down at the end of each song during the Rhythm Nation era? That’s the treatment this song needs.

“Can You Feel It” - Janet, Marlon, Tito, Jermaine, Jackie, and Randy Jackson.

* * *

“The force, it’s got a lotta power / You make me feel, you make me feel like—whoo!”

Michael’s kids have never seen him perform, though one imagines the team in a home chock full of music. Moreover, kids these days don’t know about Thriller—the people-passing-out-in-the-crowd type Thriller. They don’t remember babies, kids, and old folks jumping up and down on chairs to see M.J., or the spontaneous dance competitions mimicking Michael at any break!

Michael Jackson meant a lot to a whole lot of people, and these relationships were personal. Many have mis-read Black America’s sustained adoration of Michael Jackson as a love for brand-Michael. Yet, few recall that for many blacks growing up alongside Michael, he was their first real crush. As a teen idol, he’s one of the few to have evolved.

He was a handsomely brown, button-nosed Negro that knew and loved black music so dearly that even as a child he took the tunes to new heights. Hence, he was never just brand-Michael for those who watched him grow. Rather, he was a figure as tragic as many poor and working class people of color in America making it, taking it day by day. While many of us learn to thrive under the pressures of a society full of denial—denial of civil rights; denial of our torrid past, for example—Michael seems to have given his all so that none of us would falter in our personal lives as he fell. It is this recognition that he was human just like the rest of us.

Human? Indeed, this was most evident in his lyrics and symbolism, and clearly imbued in the scripts for redemption that he provided. Few notice that in the vast majority of his music, Michael Jackson spoke of pain and social ills, while his focus was clearly on the redemptive power of love. He celebrated this love.

Just sit and consider how many times he used the word “brother”, and then reflect on how much he meant it. Or, mute the sound and watch the full “Black or White” video. Take a close look at the images Jackson relays. All of his music incorporated these radical images—as radical as Michael employing cutting edge technology to morph into a black panther after destroying Nazi, KKK, and other hateful graffiti.

Conservatives could only see the crotch-grabbing in its superficial hues. Even still, haters failed to let the words penetrate their souls, so Michael had to hit us over the head with these lyrics like a blunt instrument. Again, “Black or White” is a message the Jacksons have maintained from the beginning.

Certainly, the guilt of social privilege enjoyed today as a result of our rigid gender, race, and class hierarchy is exactly why his music was so popular all around the globe:  folks could relate. Beyond the pain of romantic love, a great many of Michael’s tunes spoke of the redemptive power of fraternal love, of fellowship and forgiveness, while acknowledging and accepting the pain and sins of the past.

Every breath you take,
Is someone’s death in another place.
Every healthy smile,
Is hunger and strife to another child.
But the stars do shine
And promising salvation is near this time.
Can you feel it now,
So brothers and sisters
Shall we know how

Sound familiar? Indeed, this is the beat that Barack Obama has rocked from day one, and witness the difficult road he faced in relaying this message. Where some saw guilt and shame, Obama saw forgiveness. Yet, so unaccustomed to forgiveness, Americans nearly eschewed the opportunity to elect him as our leader. Similarly, many are unable to separate brand-Michael from the actual sentiments of his words. 

Hence, beyond “Man in the Mirror”, “Earth Song”, “They Don’t Care About Us”, “Beat It”, “Heal the World,” or even the blatant “Black or White”, Michael has always tried to share with the world the fraternal love he had always known. It was his own brothers who put their brown, button-nosed little brother out front, recognizing his talent. And this was no story of the Supremes, Destiny’s Child, or Dreamgirls, with one group member overtaking the rest.

Instead, the Jacksons embodied the cooperation they sang about. Michael, an awesome tenor with franticly awesome feet, was only possible because of his brothers, standing there on stage with him; they had his back, not just his back-ups! As we mourn, try to remember what he said, and focus on the power of those words:

All the children of the world should be
Lovin’ each other wholeheartedly
Yes it’s alright.
Take my message to your brother and tell him twice.
Take the news to the marchin’ men,
Who are killin’ their brothers, when death won’t do.
‘Cause we’re all the same.
Yes the blood inside my veins is inside of you.

Brothers and sisters, it is our diversity that makes us strong. But don’t take difference for granted, nor fail to recognize the humanity in any other. We all have feelings, and when we start with our commonalities, instead of focusing on our very real cultural differences, we stand to create an atmosphere of love, where the strife of one is not minimized by a fatalistic rationale that says we deserve privilege over another.

Listening to anti-Michael fans who cannot understand what the whole fuss is about over Jackson’s death, I am reminded, again, of his own music. These anti-fans would deny what they see before them and refuse to accept another’s perspective. This is exactly the sort of callousness Michael Jackson’s music addressed.

“To each their own,” he might have said, affirming that humanity will only advance when we grant each other the sympathy and, importantly, empathy that any of us require despite our own assessment of the situation. They refute the facts before them and reject the reality that fans around the globe are mourning a severe loss. Michael reminds them that the world has enough love for everyone—can you feel it? Remember:

So tonight gotta leave that nine to five upon the shelf
And just enjoy yourself.
C’mon and groove, and let the madness in the music get to you
Life ain’t so bad at all,
If you live it off the wall.
Life ain’t so bad at all (live life off the wall)
Live your life off the wall (live it off the wall)

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