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- Posted on Jun 29th 2009 7:00PM by Joshua Ostroff
'You Can't Win,' Michael Jackson
From 1978's 'The Wiz: Original Soundtrack'
In between the Jackson 5 and 'Off the Wall' eras, Michael Jackson starred as the Scarecrow in 'The Wiz,' an awesomely bizarre blaxploitation update of 'Wizard of Oz.'
'Ease on Down the Road,' the slinky duet with Diana Ross as Dorothy, became a massive, Grammy-nominated hit, but as a small child watching 'The Wiz,' the scene and song that burned itself into my brain was the much darker 'You Can't Win.'
Stuck up on his scarecrow pole, Michael Jackson soulfully belts, "You can't win/You can't break even/And you can't get out of the game" backed by a chorus of mean-spirited crows crooning about some turkey blowing out your flame.
It's a downbeat theme that Jackson would return to time and again on singles like 'Leave Me Alone' and his eerie 1997 song 'Morphine' ("Yesterday you had his trust/Today he's taking twice as much/Demerol, Demerol, oh God he's taking Demerol").
But 'You Can't Win' is from 1978, and though famous at the time, Michael was not yet the paranoid superstar he would one day become. There's still seemingly so much joy in his life at this stage that the purity of his bluesy vocals provide a gloriously uplifting counterpoint to the depressing lyrics that remain dark to the end.
Produced by Quincy Jones, the music is similarly joyful, with horns blaring along to the R&B-meets-disco beat as Jackson happily wails "You can't win, chile," as if losing was never even an option to begin with.
After hearing about Jackson's death, I went online to listen to my favorite of his songs and discovered this U.K.-only 12" maxisingle. It pairs the original soundtrack song with a four-minute disco freak-out (part two was later re-dubbed 'Can't Get Outta the Rain' and released as a B-side to 'Billie Jean' and 'The Girl Is Mine'), featuring Jackson's inimitable voice gleefully freestyling like a young James Brown.
It's a hands-in-the-air classic that makes you wonder how many other obscure Jackson songs are still waiting to be rediscovered.