The End of Pop, looking at the story and legacy of Michael Jackson one song and video clip at a time.
1.2: The Wicked Witch of Motown
The songwriting collective that bequeathed MJ and The Jackson 5 four #1 singles was called "The Corporation", and they remind me of the wicked witch in fairy tales who shows up when The Prince or Princess is born and gives some sparkly gift that's also a terrible curse only realized over time. Like a diamond ring that allows the wearer to turn any piece of doodoo they touch into gold, but then every ten years, on your birthday, one of your fingers fall off.
That character in fairy tales is usually mean, and I wouldn't want to ascribe the karmic sin of "evil intent" to The Corporation -- songwriting collectives, after all, have the noblest of goals; championing Art over Artists -- but in the narrative of MJ King of Pop, these guys are playing that oft-forgotten role that sets our hero on his predestined journey. The gift-curse of the gold-doodoo ring, or somesuch.
"ABC" is the second #1 single, but the first that showcases a little of this weird yin-yang golden-doodoo relationship.
So on one hand it's a song that's the epitome of "bubblegum soul"; this is what a songwriting collective should produce: Fun, bouncy, danceable hits. On a musical-enjoyment level, it's brilliant.
But then, on the other hand, from a distance you might think: hey, wait a minute. did that 12-year-old befroed boy just tell the girl (presumably older) "to git up and show him what she can do?" And how "t-t-t-teacher's gonna show her how to get an 'a'?" Huh? What in tarnation is this fresh befroed boy talking about? What does he know enough about to t-t-t-teach anyone?
This is a definite theme from the early Jackson 5 era. There's an empty soulless precociousness that conjures images of Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageants and child labor laws.
It's obvious when a kid is sewing fabric or something, but as any American Idol will tell you, being a pop star is hard grueling work. And what does a kid know about the "ABC's"? I've got a 3 at the start of my double-digit age bracket (sigh), and I'm still in the "LMNOP" section. Let me not even front, I'm still on "B".
With this as backdrop I think we have a clear red flag warning against the union of child/teen-bands and songwriting collectives (keep your kids from those songwriting collectives!). The best songs come from a place of genuine human emotion, not calculated formulaic manipulation. The best songs are pieces of art, and also a piece of the artist. Suppressing egos is good on a project, but not when it's teaching a child to suppress his nascent individuality. The boy's jsut growing pubes, now he's gotta act like some premature Rico Suave or something?
MJ's narrative as a whole casts a huge shadow over our conception of art and artists. Producer and product. In the end it strikes as a lesson about goodness over greatness; Michael clearly lost some of his own goodness in the pursuit of greatness. He achieved it. Was it worth it?
And he learned this at a young age via The Corporation. The witch who showed him how to make hit songs without necessarily being connected with the content of the song. As adults we can enjoy "ABC" as airy confection, we can enjoy The Corporation's golden-doodoo rings; but maybe as a kid it plants an unfortunate seed that life can follow a formula, when obviously it does not.
"ABC" fun notes:
1.1 "I Want You Back"
(next up, 1.3: Young Michael's "slow down, hoe!" song, "The Love You Save")