Remembering The Time

Reposting two pieces I wrote mere days ago. I'd love to say I was prescient. I was not. I've just been banging the hell out of Thriller.

My mother hated Billie Jean. I was seven when this joint came out, and whenever it came on the radio she'd look at me really hard and say, "If you did it with her boy, it is your son." One of the reasons I'm so blunt and open here is because that's really how I came up. Moms did not play. Plus Mike had a nose-job and a curl.

But this joint was hot. I've been banging this album a lot lately, and have concluded that it is, arguably, the greatest pop culture achievement in history. Just my humble opinion. The album is so great that joints that would be highlights on other albums, are just seen as filler on Thriller.  "Baby Be Mine" is incredible.

I remember when this came out, and all the kids who'd been lucky enough to stay up and see Friday Night Videos came to school bragging about it. You couldn't get cable in Baltimore back then. Fools were like, "Yo, every time he took a step the stones would glow! And then when he went invisible the stones kept glowing!!" We thought Mike could save us all. We hadn't heard BDP yet.

I chose this instead of the old joint because it makes me sad. Mike used to be beautiful. My sister Kelly just knew she was marrying him. And he danced so smooth and easy. I hate to think that what gave him that ability, was the same thing that ruined him. I remember watching this a few years back and thinking, "Goddamn, he's still got it. Amazing." Watch the end where he murders them b-boy style.



MORE

And then this, on Mike's place in the pantheon...

First, in reference to yesterday's story, Pops sends along this correction:

enjoyed the michael jackson piece. only thing is i remember your mom as loving that album. shortly after it came out we drove to atlanta. we wore that tape out. and knew most of the lyrics by the time we got there. i haven't spoke to her but that's my clear memory.

dad

Heh, I remember that trip. We drove from Baltimore to Atlanta, for some book conference. When you're young, your sense of time is all screwy. I remember feeling like the trip was taking forever. I don't remember Thriller, so much as Joan Armatrading. But I trust Dad's memory more than my memory on that one.

Anyway, I wanted to pick up on a debate that we started in on yesterday, and that being where Michael Jackson stands in terms of the old schoolers like Jackie Wilson, Aretha, Etta, Big O, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye etc.

Now, I realize that all these cats had different styles, and were working in different subgenres. Peter Guralnick would say Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, were more classic soul. He would throw James Brown in there too. But others would see James Brown as the beginning of Funk. I don't want to get bogged down in that debate, because I don't think there's a real answer, nor do I think it much matters. I'm more interested in the celestial place that these singers occupy, and whether there's any sense that Mike belongs up there with them.

Thriller came out at an interesting time. Bands were really losing out, as folks figured out they could do replace a horn section with a keyboard. There's this sense now that anything that came out of the disco era, and the post-disco era is essentially awful. As a kid, I had some of that. We nominally hated R&B and thought of hip-hop as the harder, "truer" form. Later we came to see hip-hop as the child of funk and soul, and 80s R&B as a corrupted, corporate, step-child.This is obviously simplistic, and not only do I not subscribe to it now. (Marvin's "Give It Up" is classic.) I don't know how much I subscribed to it then. (Dig the Lisa-Lisa clip below.) But the question is where does Mike fit into all of that? It's easy to dismiss  him, just on the basis of his success, and the qualitative decline of his later work. That second part is true of almost any musician, though.

From my perspective, Mike has earned an honored place in the black music canon. Quincey Jones obviously deserves credit, but citing him to discredit Mike is like citing Steve Cropper (or Issac Hayes) to discredit Otis Redding. It's wierd to think of Mike in that tradition, given his mega-success. But I don't know how you cut him out.

Then again, maybe I'm not the best person to ask. I love Smooth Criminal, after all. I remember coming to school and fools being like, "Yo, did you see Mike hit that lean!" My whole childhood revolves around Mike's--Jackson, Tyson, Jordan...

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In