The Curse of "Better" (A Thriller Tale)
Recently, my kids have gotten into the music, footwork and supreme awesomeness that is Michael Jackson. Somehow, they found some songs of his and now our house is filled with “Hee Hee”, “woooo” and attempts to moonwalk. It's been fun for me because I grew up a fan of good ol’ MJ as a kid, as many kids from the 80s did (1). The video below is what started this Chase family renaissance (along with the hologram'ed performance of 'Slave To The Rhythm'.
The results are captured here:
And so now our car rides and dance parties are filled with the classics, with small interludes to explain to Ellie why Michael’s voice sounds different all the time and that, yes MJ was a guy. And they are filled, for me at least, with good memories and sad life lessons.
I should explain.
In the 80s, it was cool to LOVE Michael Jackson. This was before any allegations. Before the hanging of a kid from a balcony and the dancing on a car. This was when it was a BOSS MOVE to have a pet monkey named Bubbles and to just bring him AND a date to award shows. And then another time, he brought a little person from a TV show and just carried him everywhere WHILE dating Brooke Shields. (He was Gaga before Gaga was Stephanie, man…). This was when everyone wanted to moonwalk and wear a shinny glove.(2) And this was when Thriller came out.
Thriller: The best-selling album of all time. Ever. In Life. Still.
The legend behind Thriller was that it was birthed out of anger and a sense of betrayal. You see, in 1979, Michaal and his producer Quincy Jones, released Off The Wall. OTW was a sharp disco/RnB mix that saw Michael branch out as a songwriter, musician and star. And it was amazing. To this day, if you play “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” at a wedding where people actually love music, the party will move to the next level (3). That's when Michael introduced the full falsetto sound.
At the following Grammys, Michael didn’t win the coveted Album of the Year and he was high-voiced livid. And so he and Quincy set out to make the perfect album with the perfect songs and story. The album doesn’t really have a flow of sorts (4) but it plays soooooo hard. From top to bottom, it was straight hits. And people loved it, to the tune of 29 million people in the US alone. And all together, it became the biggest selling album of all time in one calendar year.
And yup, he finally won his grammy for album of the year…along with 7 others, setting a record.
Then it all went downhill.
When he and Quincy went back to the drawing board for "Bad", his follow-up to Thriller, they wanted to make a better 'Thriller'. In fact, they just took the same formula and “toughed” it up a bit…well as much as you could make Michael Jackson look tough. So the paranoia in Wanna Be Starting Something become a split between defiance in "Bad" and retreat in 'Leave Me Alone'. 'Billy Jean' becomes 'Dirty Diana'…and on it went. In fact, Michael predicted that since Thriller had sold close to 50 million copies around the world, Bad could sell 100 million.
Well. He was off by a lot of millions.
See, while "Bad" was popular and really good, music had begun to change. These two things called Heavy Metal and Rap started to move into the mainstream, altering the sound of the youth. Michael was looking old. And people just were into him as they once were. He aimed for better and only got good enough. And this was just before his life became a human show of allegations, rumors, truths, Lisa Marie Pressly, the Neverland raid and more…)
The curse of trying better himself beat him like the Spurs just beat the Heat: hard. And he never recovered. The voice of his abusive father (Be the best), his quest for immortality (Be remembered) and his need for love (Be accepted) became his ghosts and haunted him until his untimely death. Every album has hints of "Thriller" but are hurdled with songs of defence, defiance and dance.
So...what the heck does that have to do with anything? We always want THIS thing to be better than THE LAST thing, don’t we? New look, new ideas, new whatever. Maybe…just maybe, better isn’t best. I'm not saying "Don't be excellent!" or something to that effect, but rather don't try to duplicate success. Aim for new rather than old. The saying is lighting never strikes the same place twice and that doing something awesome is like catching lighting in a bottle. Both of these feats are ‘impossible’. Yet we stand outside in the rainstorm all the time, with mason jars in our hands and hope in our minds.
I wonder what would have happened if MJ just wiped the slate clean and tried something new rather than chase a number? I wonder if he would have had more fun than chasing a ghost? The result was amazing music but at the cost of a man’s life before his death. And this happens all the time in marriages, places of employment, adventures and more…
And so while my kids sing the songs of my youth, I can’t help but remind myself that each moment of my life is a memory that will live in my mind and on a page but can’t be duplicated. A memory can help with planning and warning but can’t be relived. And that’s okay. That ghost can’t haunt someone who is constantly looking forward.
And I’m also reminded that when MJ was great, he was the king.
1. In my opinion, 80’s MJ was the best MJ, or perhaps Apex MJ. Reasons? Well, you have Thriller (1982) with seven released singles all going to the top 10, the music videos that broke down racial lines on MTV, the moonwalk, the leather jacket/high pants/white socks ensembles, the glove, BUBBLES, Michael singing the words "Tenderoni" on P.Y.T...the list could go on. Then you have Bad (1987), with 5 number 1 singles, a video directed by Martin Scorcese and the Moonwalker movie. 80’s MJ wins, hands down. In second place? 70s MJ: Off The Wall and Blame it on the boogie wraps that up nicely. Third place? Meh…I guess anything before HIStory. Dangerous was pretty tight…plus it had that Free Willy Jam. Remember Free Willy? How did they even have sequel? This footnote deserves a footnote.
2. For the record, I can’t moonwalk and I owned the glove. Wore it everywhere. It wasn't weird. It was just the 80s.
3. My favourite MJ songs in a kind-of particular order: Wanna Be Starting Something (will always be my top. Perfection), Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, P.Y.T, Off The Wall, Beat It, Thriller, Billy Jean (This three change everyday), Remember The Time, Bad, Another Part of Me, Torture, Can You Feel It, Smooth Criminal, Say Say Say (with Paul McCartney) and ANYTHING by the Jackson 5. That 'Love Never Felt So Good' is a nice throwback too. But seriously, Wanna Be Starting is the BEST album opener EVER. EVER. Find another and I will punch you square in the face.
4. For example, how does the title song Thriller fit with Baby Be Mine or the Paul McCartney-assisted “The Girl Is Mine”, my LEAST fav song on the album?