published: 24 /
In his latest 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Rols' column, Ben Howarth asks if Michael Jackson was any good musically
Here’s a question I’ve never found a need to ask myself before: Was Michael Jackson any good?
As a student, I occasionally allowed myself to attend student club nights, where a leading light in the student union would offer up an entirely tasteless selection of chart pop, not-quite-hip-hop, 90s-nostalgia and then some music I liked even less than that. In between, ‘Billie Jean’ sounded simply magnificent. But buying a copy for myself, to listen to in my own home?
Perhaps he was better than I give him credit for. It is true that he had sold an awful lot of records. Just not to me.
Writing in 'The Guardian' earlier this month, art critic Jonathan Jones argued that the reason he had become a success in his line of work was that, “I know that my instinct for what is valuable in art is unusually sure”. Mr Jones knows best. He insisted that criticism wasn’t democratic, and that the public needed him to tell them what wasn‘t good.
Had he turned his hand to reviewing pop records, I’d like to know what Jonathan Jones would have made of Michael Jackson. Critics have always had a difficult time with him. And that hasn’t made any difference at all, as ‘Thriller’ has sold more copies than just about anything else, while musicians and the public continue to revere him not just as entertaining, but a master of his craft.
'Q' magazine rather unfortunately decided to make a less than complementary feature on Jackson their cover story the month before he died. Yet, in 1999 he was not included at all in a list of “the 100 greatest stars of the 20th century”, a list that did manage to make room for Bez, the dancer from the Happy Mondays, one of the very worst bands ever. Even their readership wasn’t overwhelmed, as in 2006, ‘Thriller’ only secured enough votes to come in at 58 in a list of their favourite albums.
Their more reverential sister-paper, 'Mojo', meanwhile, wasn’t even that generous. Not one of his songs made their list of the greatest songs of all time, nor could he make their list of 100 greatest singers or greatest albums.
But the public carried on buying ‘Thriller’ regardless, and now that he’s dead, everyone seems to have decided - without pausing for thought - that Jackson was a towering cultural figure, the Elvis of his times. After all, the public voted with their feet. But, by that logic, 'Titanic' would be a cinematic achievement to rank alongside 'Gone with the Wind' and Dan Brown as accomplished a writer as Tolkien.
And this is when the critics usually come in - to decide the difference between what is worthwhile creative output and what is worthless, albeit popular, tat. But sometimes it doesn’t matter. If you like Michael Jackson, the fact that I’m not too fussed is unlikely to worry you much.
Writing about pop music clearly has a role in these times of ever expanding release schedules - especially as the internet has removed yet another barrier to the entirely talent-free occupying that vital space near our ear drums. But its most interesting moments tend to be when they get it wrong, or when - against the odds - they get something extra-specially right.
The enduring appeal of albums the public at large never warmed to, like ‘Forever Changes’, ‘Loveless’ and ‘Doolittle’ show the value of critics. The enduring appeal of ‘Thriller’, an album this particular critic has never heard and probably never will, shows the process’ limitations.
So was Michael Jackson any good? To answer that, I suppose I’d have to listen to the records. I’d still rather not.