By Noise Journo
The reviews of Michael Jackson’s Xscape are pouring in as we speak, and nobody is really impressed. Yet somehow, the posthumous release has hit number one in over 50 countries. But why? What’s so interesting about Jackson’s vocals being layered over a bunch of tracks by pop stars nobody gives a shit about in 2014? Nothing—we’re just obsessed with dead musicians (Tupac anyone?), and it will never stop. Even if the music is average, or just plain bad.
Jackson’s latest, without even giving it a proper listen, couldn’t even be close to the regurgitated “You Rock My World” vomit off 2001′s Invincible, which included a music video that felt like a “Smooth Criminal” parody or some Disneyland supercut of bad Michael Jackson clichés, starring Marlon Brando on a couch.
And what the fuck is up with the cover art for Xscape? It looks like they pulled this off some 4chan thread titled “Michael Jackson is an alien,” copied and pasted his head onto some glittering astronaut body, using a steel vomit bowl for a helmet. He looks like a discombobulated “Star Trek” villain being transported into his own face. Honestly, which Art Center dropout designed this shit?
No, I won’t waste my time listening to Jackson’s new record. “Love Never Felt So Good” is just another boring disco shitbomb, so no need to go beyond the horrid first single, penned by Jackson and Paul Anka in 1983 and unreleased for good reason. Speaking of shit from the past that nobody needs to listen to anymore, the new Jackson record includes reported contributions by Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo (again, I haven’t listened to the record, and probably won’t). If that’s true, it’s as if L.A. Reid got bored and decided to hand out a few paychecks. The Epic Record Chairman and CEO is even hinting at rumors of a Justin Bieber ‘collaboration’ with Jackson. But somehow, even under the shockingly bad tutelage of suits like Reid, people still go gaga over anything relating to Jackson.
The sudden rush of hero worship around Jackson’s latest record got me thinking about his overall legacy. First, let’s get beyond the most challenging point for most people to comprehend, one in which nostalgia and commerce need to be removed to truly understand:
Michael Jackson is overrated. Get over it. Does this piss you off? You’re not thinking logically.
With the exception of Thriller, the best selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s solo career from 1979 to 1994 (no, Blood on the Dance Floor in ’97 doesn’t count), and not counting the horrid posthumous releases and an abortion of an album in 2001, was mostly just smoke a mirrors and great marketing. Theme parks, arcade games, sci-fi music videos, hanging out with kid from Home Alone–that was what made Michael Jackson popular after Thriller.
1979′s Off the Wall (his first real hit as a solo star) was a disco record that had two notable singles, “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which at this point, are dated Studio 54 “bangers” that do nothing on the dance floor except remind people of how famous Michael Jackson was in 1979. After that, from 1980 to 1991, Jackson’s reign as the biggest pop star on the planet, culminated in just one masterpiece, Thriller, which signaled the beginning of the end.
Seriously, think about it, what did Michael Jackson do after Thriller?
Aside from a few outstanding tracks off 1987′s Bad (really, just “Smooth Criminal” and “Man in the Mirror”) the next decade wasn’t that great. In fact, it was bad.
Dangerous was filled with almost nothing but whining about his troubles. History, mostly a greatest hits record with a few political messages, wasn’t even close to as impressive as the kiss he shared with Lisa Marie at the MTV Video Music Awards in ’94. PR stunt? Sure, but it was more interesting than his music career at the time.
The two albums were footnotes that included two of the most bloated and unlistenable pop songs ever: “Jam” and “Scream.” And suddenly, before we had a chance to appreciate that stunning red leather jacket and those hyper-sexualized dance moves (which were awesome), Michael Jackson began to transform into some strange Kubrickian film character who kept giraffes as pets, dressed like Napoleon went glam. Somehow he managed to alienate even his most loyal fans by adopting a goofy Peter Pan complex and musically doing nothing for the rest of his life. He became an alien, that is.
Michael Jackson never evolved, and while his fans blame his perfectionism and troubled childhood on his post-Thriller downfall, I blame his lack of foresight and inflated ego.
Madonna, Jackson’s female counterpart for most of the ’80s, born on the same year and month as Jackson, seems to actually be invincible. She’s evolved like some Darwinian star child, and because of her resilience she’s much more impressive than Jackson, who crumbled early during his prime. Her ability to keep up with the times and continue to be a relevant artist, 30 years into her career, is astounding. Michael Jackson was completely done a decade in; Madonna just got started, a decade in. Her 30-year solo career is only rivaled by Elton John, Mariah Carey, and Paul McCartney (in terms of the living), and she’s even had more UK #1 singles than Jackson.
Madonna is better, because Madonna’s influence reigns supreme on today’s artists, her impact on pop culture through film and fashion may never be topped, and Madonna changed the role of women in pop music. She gave women power, the ability to do more than just record dance hits, and brought about change in the industry that gave birth to every single pop star today.
She began as nothing more than a manufactured pop star, but unlike Jackson, she rebelled and through her punk antics–changed the role of women in music forever.
Let’s not forget her memorable hit singles and videos on MTV, that changed fashion in the ’80s and ’90s, when Jackson was dressing like he was the fifth Beatle on the cover of Sgt. Peppers. Madonna created the look of the ’80s with her blonde fizzy hair, black leather jacket, and iconic ‘bad girl’ attitude that was feminist and tough as nails. She influenced the riot grrrl movement of the early ’90s just as much as Lady Gaga in the 2000s. Madonna was way more punk than Jackson, and today, pop is edgier and loaded with more chutzpah because of her.
Madonna was a Sex Pistol and roared like a V8 engine fueled by feminism, attitude, and smash hits “Like a Virgin” and “Express Yourself,” tracks that gave women in pop a real voice and brought New York edginess to the mainstream.
Just look at pop music today: Sky Ferreira’s video for “I Blame Myself,” like almost everything Lady Gaga has done since “Just Dance” in 2009, carries the ‘bad girl’ torch lit by Madonna when she first hit the scene in 1983. Sure, artists like Bruno Mars (who suck), Justin Timberlake, and Usher were influenced by Jackson more than Madonna, but seriously, almost everyone else is a reductive reissue of Madonna; Britney Spears, Pink, Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, Miley Cyrus, even Courtney Love–they’re influenced by Madonna more than any other artist past or present. Their freedom to be sexual, fight back, and put on amazing stage shows (just look at clips from Madonna’s ‘Blond Ambition Tour’ for evidence) are all thanks to Madonna paving the way by taking more chances than Evel Knievel.
Madonna’s overall impact on pop culture far outweighs that of Jackson–who became an echo of his work on Thriller following controversy (most of which was unfair) that destroyed his career and left him a bitter escapist, unable to move beyond the Moonwalk dance move he created.
Madonna has changed society through her fiery ambition and unwillingness to compromise. She did it with memorable films like Desperately Seeking Susan that ushered-in fashion trends, and then nearly a decade later, she would provide some of the most memorable singles of the ’90s to go along with classic films like A League of their Own (which she starred in) and With Honors.
Madonna’s accomplishments across film, fashion, and music could fill the pages of a book, and it’s not even close to being over. While it’s nothing like what she was able to create between 1983 and 1994, Madonna recently released an EDM record, proving that she’s looking forward and adding new elements to her music. Jackson also experimented, sure, but after Thriller, he seemed to be stuck in the past, fearful of growing up and progressing as an artist.
Of course, Jackson’s role as humanitarian, which should be applauded, cannot be denied. On some level, Jackson was our most giving pop star, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This isn’t a debate about charity or political power, this is about being a pop star.
Madonna, fearing nothing, is the most talked-about pop artist of all time, the face of the MTV generation and without question the most influential pop star since Elvis.