First he was a prodigy, then he was a genius, then he was a freak. Actually, Michael Jackson was always a little bit of all three, and his strangeness, along with his overwhelming musical gifts, is the edge that has kept pop-watchers fascinated as Jackson's career ascended to a world-beating peak and collapsed into paranoia and self-pity. Though images of Jackson's dancing feet and constantly resculpted face have been inescapable for the last 30 years, all his dualities -- androgyny, adulthood and childhood, shyness and megalomania, vulnerability and fury -- were captured in his music alone. In the sound of his voice, desperation and vulnerability came through just as clearly as mastery.
Jackson was five years old when he joined his brothers in the Jackson Family vocal group, and he quickly emerged as the main draw and lead singer when the group became the Jackson 5. He was a boy-man from the beginning; though he sang in a child's piping voice, he danced like a grown-up hoofer and sang with the R&B/gospel inflections of Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder.
The best material of Jackson's Motown years, unquestionably, was his hits with the Jackson 5: songs like "I Want You Back," "ABC," and "The Love You Save," which Motown aimed precisely at teens and preteens, complete with references to grade school. The two-CD Anthology is all anyone needs, and more, of the four solo albums Jackson made in his teens.
While his voice descended ever so slightly from boy soprano to his current androgynous high tenor between 1971 and 1975, Jackson gamely sang whatever Motown's team brought him: exuberant covers, like "Rockin' Robin" and a distraught "Ain't No Sunshine," and second-tier Motown originals, which were mostly lonely-love plaints or inspirational hooey -- the kinds of songs that would persist as filler on later Jackson albums. Of course, the oddities had begun: Jackson's big solo hit was "Ben," a love song to a pet rat.
But Jackson had learned plenty at Motown, and with his first solo album for Epic, Off the Wall, he was unstoppable. Though it was released in 1979, when the disco fad was already abating, Off the Wall managed to capture the glitter-ball moment without getting stuck in it. That's because Jackson and producer Quincy Jones went after full-out '70s funk rather than the simplified disco thump. Then they swirled in disco strings and Jackson's airy voice like frothy milk in a latte.
Jackson's own songs, built on his vocal beat-boxing, were the album's funkiest tracks; they also had the nuttiest lyrics, a taste of things to come. And Tim Bahler's "She's Out of My Life" became the prototype for Jackson's better ballads: smooth, sustained, tuneful, and just on the verge of overwrought while staying poised. By the time the album petered out in its final songs, Jackson had already proved himself.
Then he doubled his ambitions and multiplied his audience with Thriller. Picking up ideas (and reusing a few riffs) from Off the Wall, Jackson went after every pop constituency he could imagine: dancers, rockers, lovers, kids, parents. Paul McCartney shared one song, Eddie Van Halen shredded another. And Jackson was now ready to look beyond the dance floor, to sing about ambition ("Wanna Be Startin' Some-thin' "), gang fights ("Beat It"), paternity suits ("Billie Jean"), compulsive cruising ("Human Nature"), and primal fears ("Thriller"), while dispensing irresistible synthesized bass lines.
Thriller had extramusical help in becoming the best-selling noncompilation album of all time: Jack-son's dancing feet and dazzling stage presence, am-plified by the newfound promotional reach of music video and the Reagan era's embrace of glossy celebrity. But especially in the album's seven hit singles (out of nine songs), the music stands on its own. As the biggest pop star in the world, Jackson followed through by cowriting (with Lionel Richie) the well-intentioned, unctuous, profoundly self-absorbed all-star benefit single "We Are the World," the template for Jackson's pop-gospel anthems to come.
Bad wasn't so bad. But it was an inevitable anticlimax after Thriller, offering more variations than advances. The album was full of forced poses that started with the title song; people who are "really really bad" don't say so backed by a chipmunk chorus. But the music had lots of small pleasures: the suddenly accelerating synthesizer in "Speed Demon," the lighthearted affection in "The Way You Make Me Feel," the transparently manipulative but effective anthem "Man in the Mirror."
But Jackson's unruly id also erupts on Bad: with rough, choked, hiccupy vocals, nasty scenarios, and music that quashes his sweet side. "Dirty Diana" and "Leave Me Alone" present predatory women -- the feared sisters of "Billie Jean" -- while "Smooth Criminal" shoots a woman down. Jackson the celebrity continued to present himself as a guy singing love bromides and uplifting thoughts, but Jackson the songwriter was letting loose some demons.
With Dangerous, Jackson plunged off the deep end. To update himself, Jackson traded Quincy Jones for new jack swing producer Teddy Riley and allowed some guest rappers on a few songs. Jackson's musi-cal categories were hardening: crisp dance tracks ("Jam"), ultrasmooth ballads ("Gone Too Soon"), anthems ("Heal the World"). And while his ballads clung to convention, a beat could set off anything from a tirade against the media to new complaints about women to a free-association about faith and inner peace. For most of the album, brittle rhythm tracks back a singer who sounds almost unhinged with fury and suspicion, only calming himself to sing about death in "Gone Too Soon."
HIStory started out as a hits collection and turned into a double album that's an inadvertent before-and-after story: the gifted, confident Jackson who made the hits and the isolated, self-pitying, maniacal Jackson who's living through their aftermath. Harsh, near-industrial beats collide with brief pop choruses, as if Jackson's at war with himself. Whether he's ranting about tabloids and money-grubbers or piteously crooning, "Have you seen my childhood?", he sounds like he's running on bile. (Epic would later release the greatest-hits half by itself as Greatest Hits HIStory Volume 1, then add a few songs for Number Ones.)
The tantrum continued in the five new songs on Blood on the Dance Floor, which also included eight beat-added remixes of tracks from HIStory. Jackson vowed, "If you want to see eccentric oddities, I'll be grotesque before your eyes." The songs were as raw as Jackson would ever be, even if his complaints were getting redundant.
Jackson regained his composure for Invincible. Only allowing himself one anti-tabloid song, he tried to play the gentle, adoring lover and concentrated on ballads. But three decades after he had first charmed the world, his old suavity was gone, and all that was left was grim calculation.(JON PARELES)
From the 2004 The New Rolling Stone Album Guide