Michael Jackson and his fears

By MARK MOSES  |  June 26, 2009

Given the melodrama of his tumbles of sighs and cackles, it's crucial that Jackson's solo records set him in adequate relief. In his early- to mid-'70s heyday, Green always had the reliable Hi rhythms to chafe and nuzzle against, and he often relied on ghostly double-tracked voices to bear the weight of his nuances. Gaye separates his voice into two — often conflicting — sets of cries and parallel rhythms. Producer Jones chooses to shadow Jackson's every move. Bass riffs often share the melodic riff of the chorus so that Jackson can bounce of them with no loss in steadiness. The bass is often pitched high, shying away from the quaking low notes of the dance floor's rudest motivations. In fact, Jones surrounds Jackson with complimentary upper-register tones to put his fanciful whispers at home: string synthesizer frills, abrupt guitar shrieks, massed choral clouds. Between the two, Jackson and Jones fashion a miraculous dancing machine that pumps bubbles. Just as adeptly, they can conjure up a balladry whose agility keeps it from bogging down.

In Thriller (Epic), Jones and Jackson never pant in vain to top Off the Wall with garish settings; they've agreed that Thriller should differ from the promenade of its predecessor. The opening track "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," spirals into confusion with Michael tossing off scary call-and-responses about "baby slowly dying" and being "a vegetable." Not exactly the high-stepping of "Girl-friend." Jackson's second collaboration with Jones lives up to its name partially because Jones has framed Jackson more economically than on Off the Wall. Fewer strings and synths whir and swoop; the guitars guard Jackson more closely than ever. The opening chant, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," channels its embarrassment of riches into rhythmic energy, rather than isolate asides. Doubled bass parts — synthesizer following Jackson, bass guitar lurking beneath—distend the percussive tattoos and horn sprays. Jackson is mimicked by a responding chorus at every turn, and he flings back their impersonations of him. By the song's end, they're tossing the chant "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" back and forth, and the song winds up as an Afro-beat rave-up complete with a bow to Manu Dibango. Thriller is at ease enough to admit other influences too. "Beat it," written by Jackson, lightens the stomp of hard rock by stuffing extra bass notes between the guitar snarls. Not only does the cameo solo by Eddie Van Halen make Jackson's hysteria seem calm, its bravado illustrates exactly what the song is railing against.

Part of Off the Wall's sleek allure came from the panache with which it made the world into a carefree place where the lost threatening decision was what to wear. Off the Wall never questioned Jackson; he was a star, after all, and stars answer to no one. Thriller questions him plenty and from a couple of directions. Not only is the arena-rock translation of "Beat It" new to Jackson—its angry lecturer to a "macho man" scrapper takes place on a street far removed from his former glittering clubs. As Jackson growls and sobs his disdain for fighting, he could be defending his own unconventional masculinity.

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