Michael Jackson: The boy in the bubble

Released 30 years ago, Michael Jackson’s album Thriller was the beginning of his assault on the white pop world. It’s so dazzling it makes you forget what happened to Jackson next.

There’s a video on YouTube of an eight-year-old autistic boy standing six inches away from the TV, mirroring every dance move to Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller” with academic precision. Most of the comments have been flagged as inappropriate. It’s a shame that the 30th anniversary of the release of the album of the same name comes in the midst of the current Jimmy Savile scandal, but it’s impossible to talk about Jackson without mentioning children because, like all great performers – Freddie Mercury, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift – he had a direct line to their brains; the magical ability to communicate on all levels that separates megastars from mere pop stars.

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some said they “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the mad woman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicky Minaj and a whole host of twenty somethings who were not even born during his glory years. Which brings us back to that kid in front of the TV. The record that achieved all these things was Thriller.

Just before its release in December 1982, Jackson did one of his last ever interviews, with Smash Hits magazine. At 25, six years before he moved into his Californian ranch, Neverland, he is already a prisoner in his own home. Disney is building a full-scale replica of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland in the house, he explains down the phone: “Animatronics – where the faces move, the figures move, the eyebrows move, and their eyes and their bodies, and they shoot. When you step in there’s going to be a whole war going on!”

He still lives with his mother, father and two of his sisters: “I’d die of loneliness if I moved out.” He speaks of his friendship with Mark Lester, the child star from the film Oliver! and his “phone friend” Adam Ant, whom he’s never met. He asks Smash Hits to “say hi” to his friends Paul and Linda McCartney. And he talks with awe about Katherine Hepburn, J M Barrie and Steven Spielberg. He recently gave the latter a book on Walt Disney “and he said it was the best present he had ever gotten”.

Ask him about music and you’re talking to an entirely different person. “I don’t think I do represent disco,” he says, politely but firmly. The Beatles were great, he concedes, but the songs of the Motown songwriting team of Holland- Dozier-Holland come close. And he can’t abide musicians trading off one hit for their whole careers – “no self-discipline . . .”

By the time Jackson signed his first solo record deal at the age of 17, in 1975, he’d already had a dozen years experience in show business. He was so sharp at the age of ten that the soul singer Joe Simon wondered if he might actually be a midget: “His father was a slick businessman, I had heard. It would’ve been just like him to pass a midget off as a child.” Jackson’s ability to make strong connections with people a lot older than himself – a process he reversed later on – was normal in the life of a child star and might shed light on his connection with the producer Quincy Jones, who worked on both Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller.
 
The pair first met when Jackson was ten, and again later when he was playing the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s production of The Wiz. As with all historic collaborations, people argue over who brought the magic to the table. Jones gave Jackson a makeover: he advised him to sing a third lower for a more lustrous sound and hired a vocal coach to increase his range. He waded through dozens of songs to search for the ones with the “goosebumps”. But Jackson was already producing and arranging on Off the Wall and wrote four tracks for that album including “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”, his first number one since the song about the pet rat (“Ben”). The English songwriter Rod Temperton, formerly of the band Heatwave, noticed Jackson’s innovative use of short, staccato melodies, so different from the structures that defined the disco songs of the 1970s.

Off the Wall won Jackson a host of awards – all the black ones. Billboard’s Top Black Artist and Top Black Album, a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He was not at all happy; it should have been record of the year, he said. By the time he started work on Thriller, in the spring of 1982, it wasn’t just about making an album that was even better – it was about cracking the white market and the world.

The first track they laid down was “The Girl Is Mine”, in which he and phone-friend Paul McCartney fight over a lady. It’s the only song on the album that makes you cringe today but it’s a damn sight subtler than McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony And Ivory”. Eddie Van Halen was drafted in for a very non disco guitar solo on “Beat It” (Jones had asked Jackson to write a “black ‘My Sharona’”). Jackson fought hard to keep the 29-second instrumental intro on “Billie Jean” because it “made him want to dance” – funny to think that Jones wanted to lose what became the song’s most celebrated feature, because he didn’t think it would work on the radio.

Then there was the title track – or rather, that wonderful, preposterous, camp, 14-minute “motion picture short” narrated by Vincent Price and directed by John “Werewolf” Landis. MTV, then in its infancy, had barely shown a black face until 1982 (CBS Records’ president Walter Yetnikoff had apparently threatened to boycott them, saying, “I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy”). Suddenly “Thriller” was being aired twice an hour to meet demand. A giant step in the history of race relations in music had been made but most of the world was too busy learning the dance routine to notice.

This was a vision informed as much by Broadway, Disney and MGM as by pop music – a product of Jackson’s own, strange, secluded dream world. No wonder Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, child stars themselves in Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, declared him their biggest influence when it wasn’t even fashionable to do so.

Music critics love to discourse on when an artist “lost it”, when things started to go wrong. Looking at Jackson’s life and work that way is a complete waste of time. He wasn’t “OK” when he made Thriller – he was building “Pirates Of the Caribbean” in his bedroom. In a 1979 interview he talks about feeling so lonely he walks the streets at night to try to find someone to talk to. On a Thriller documentary made at the time, John Landis says, innocently, that for Jackson the video was all about transformation: “He wanted to turn into a monster, I don’t know why. I told him it would be unpleasant!” The physical changes Jackson would undergo as a result of cosmetic surgery over the next few years were rather more time-consuming, painful and self-punishing.

One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today is that what came next never enters your head. The record exists in a bubble – it remains a Technicolour, transformative experience that seems to come from a more distant age in entertainment, when the product mattered more than all the lives that went into it. You can watch any of those great Hollywood movies without thinking about Joan Crawford’s coat hangers, or Charlie Chaplin’s taste for teens, or the real-life madness of Vivien Leigh.

Those people were Jackson’s heroes and in a strange way he belonged with them. Smash Hits asked the 25-year-old who he would most like to meet in the world. “I wanted to meet Walt Disney but he died,” he replied. “I wanted to meet Charlie Chaplin but he died. There’s nobody that I would really want to meet.”

Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic

A still from John Landis's video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller".

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times