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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times