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- Posted on Jun 23rd 2010 12:15PM by James Sullivan
Michael Jackson's all-world 'Thriller' album was just turning three when a little girl named Janelle was born in late 1985 in Kansas City, Kan. The girl grew up loving the energetic superstar – his total devotion to entertainment and self-expession – and she started seeking out older clips of his TV appearances as a child star.
"I was so inspired by the song 'Ben,'" says Janelle Monae, now one of the brightest stars among countless performers who learned how to give everything they have from Jackson. "His voice gave me chills."
Monae's 3-year-old nephew has also become "infatuated" with the 'Thriller' album. At that age, he knows nothing, she says, about Jackson's odd, troubled and ultimately tragic private life. On the one-year anniversary of the singer's startling death, it's the music that truly matters, say some of his biggest admirers.
"I think once a year, when his life is chronicled, people will have to touch on the negative points, because it's all documented," says the nationally syndicated radio DJ Tom Joyner. "But for the rest of the year, his musical genius will overshadow his personal problems."
"I grew up on Michael Jackson," says Nelson George, noted author of the books 'The Death of Rhythm and Blues,' 'Hip Hop America' and the just-published 'Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson.' The writer and the singer were roughly the same age; George's 20-something nieces also grew up on Michael, and now a friend's 8-year-old son is watching every Michael Jackson video.
"Loves him so much, he wanted to get a Jheri curl," George says with a laugh.
Michael Jackson's timeless, multi-generational appeal has to do with the purity of his artistry, says the author.
"There was just something about this guy. If you cut through all the life [stuff] and just watch what he does, he had a tremendous power. He had a joy, an innocence, a commitment to performance that was really unique.
"Elvis wasn't that. The Beatles aren't that. It was something different."
For Howard Kramer, curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jackson undoubtedly belongs on the same level as those other titans of pop. Among the many oddities about Jackson's life were the facts that he was once married to Presley's daughter, and he famously owned publishing rights to the Beatles' music.
"It's the identical thing you could say about Presley," says Kramer, who has planned a weekend of Hall of Fame events to commemorate Jackson's life and death. "Their fans accept all their faults. And those who want to emphasize the failings, they can do that, but they're missing the bigger picture.
"When these people die, they leave behind their artwork. I can always go back and listen to [Elvis'] 'Sun Sessions' or [Michael's] 'Off the Wall.'"
Kramer says he saw the reunited Jackson 5 on their 1981 'Triumph' tour, "and it was spectacular. That's what I'll take with me."
The job of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, says the curator, is to focus on the music and where it fits in history. The inductees' "human shortcomings" – in Jackson's case, the tabloid fodder of his child-molestation charges, his plastic surgery and other reported problems – while not ignored, typically take a backseat. Kramer says the Hall's unofficial policy is "trust the art, not the artist."
Joyner, who calls one of his sons by the nickname "Thriller," says he thinks Jackson's sleeping problems (the singer died of "acute propofol intoxication," an overdose of a powerful anesthetic) resulted from the stress of "striving to perfect his game... There's a huge cost for living the kind of life he did, and I think we fans got more out of it than Michael did."
The colossal impact of Jackson's 'Thriller,' still the best-selling album of all time (by some estimates as many as 100 million copies have been sold worldwide), marked the last great achievement of the 20th-century music industry, says Nelson George. The promotional significance of MTV in its infancy, the unifying force of pop radio, the emphasis on selling physical product, not computer files: 'Thriller,' he says, was the last time "one artist could become a dominant figure in popular culture."
That's no knock on the success of contemporary superstars such Lady Gaga or Beyoncé, George says. "But when 'Thriller' came out, people stopped what they were doing to watch the video. People's childhoods were defined by that experience. That bigness, that sense of hugeness, would be hard for any recording artist to match today."
George recently attended a hip-hop show in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the DJ dropped a classic Jackson 5 record into the mix. Before Jackson's death, says the writer, the relentless coverage of the singer's dismaying private life made many fans turn their backs.
"There was a whole group of people who loved the music, and they got real quiet," he says. Jackson's troubles "made them uncomfortable and sad.
"Now, they're reasserting themselves. They're really back."
Monae just taped a version of Charlie Chaplin's standard 'Smile' – one of Jackson's favorite songs – for Billboard. On Friday, one year to the day after Jackson died, she will be honored as this year's recipient of ASCAP's Vanguard Award at the company's Rhythm and Soul Awards.
"I believe when you die you pass on to a different frequency," she says. "You can't stop the energy. It will continue to recycle itself."
In Jackson's case, the energy was off the wall.
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