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Student essay on bad

bad6Last summer, I added Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video to the music analysis/research unit of my English 102 curriculum. As most of my readers know, my classes have been dissecting the “Black or White” video for years. More recently, I had added “Earth Song” to the curriculum, but had also debated the idea for some time of adding “Bad” which I felt could make an interesting companion piece to “Black or White”‘s racial themes. I had started using “Bad” in American Lit to help illustrate and enrich the theme of Langston Hughes’s essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, and having had much success there, felt inspired to add it to English 102 (also, I had spent the better part of the summer writing on the “Bad” short film and the story of Edmund Perry myself for an upcoming anthology collection on Jackson’s works) so perhaps I was feeling especially inspired to discuss it in the classroom. In any event, however, I have discovered as an educator that Michael Jackson’s songs and short films-many of them replete with social conscious messages that still resonate with us today, and what’s more, remain relevant today-are important works for facilitating analytical class discussions and debates.

On that note, I wanted to share with you an exceptionally insightful essay written by Bethany Pittman, who used Elizabeth Amisu’s excellent analysis as one of her required sources:

The Superhero in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” by Bethany Pittman

Released on September 7, 1987, Michael Jackson’s pop funk song “Bad” was a number one hit within one month. Originally written to be a duet, it was included on the album Bad and was received with mixed reviews from members of the black community. Many were unsure what to think about the video; however, Jackson’s intent was to improve the relationships between the black and white communities. Jackson’s character, Daryl, is an embodiment of both these communities and the consequences he faces because of that. By comparing Jackson’s character in “Bad” to Harry Potter and Superman, Elizabeth Amisu is painting him as a superhero – one that is creating a radical, cultural movement in the black community.

It is clear that the video is making a statement in the black community even from the first scene. Jackson’s character is one attending an all white school where he is doing exceptionally well academically. Later in the video when he is surrounded by his black friends he is mocked for this; attending this school is something that is simply unacceptable for his friends since it puts blacks and whites on the same level. His friends believe that the white community is filled with snobby rich people, completely opposite of the environment in which they have been raised. During the train scene, the sole black female has her head and eyes covered while looking down. The rest of the white males and females are uncovered and looking out of the windows. Jackson’s character does the same, showing that he is used to being immersed in the white community regardless of his skin color. These two examples show to the audience that it is possible for the black and white communities to exist together without harm; this even creates a more educated black community in the case of Edmund Perry. Based on the true story experiences of Edmund Perry, “Bad” showcases a black male standing up to his friends for what he believes is the right thing to do.

bad3

Continuing on through the beginning of the music video Jackson’s character undergoes peer pressure from his friends. When Jackson’s character says that he does not want to participate, his friend repeatedly asks him “Are you bad?” This is paired with taunting about how Jackson’s character has lost his respect with his friends by being sent to a “sissy school” within the white community. In her article, Amisu claims that Jackson’s character “is going from safety to conflict”, the “safety” being the upper class school, and “conflict” being Daryl’s home and friends (Amisu). She compares this transfer of protection and shelter to Harry Potter’s first train ride to Hogwarts. While Daryl is returning to his home where he was raised and Potter is departing to Hogwarts for the first time, they are both faced with challenges once they reach their destination. They both are moving between different communities with different societal standards and cultural norms. By drawing this conclusion, Amisu is presenting the audience with the idea that Daryl is accepted in both communities, furthering a cultural movement in the black community.

bad2

Amisu goes on to show this bilateral personification of Daryl in her analysis of his clothing during the dancing scenes. She states that “Jackson is simultaneously Clark Kent and Superman, both a shy introvert and an inspiring showman” (Amisu). The “shy introvert” is referring to Jackson’s character at school. He is one that follows the rules and excels academically; one that pays attention in class and is eager to learn. The “inspiring showman” in Daryl is brought out when his friend continues to taunt him and ask him “Are you bad?” Daryl is frustrated and shows that he is indeed “bad” by performing inspiring and insistent dance sequences throughout the video. Much like Superman, Daryl is existent and accepted in two completely opposite communities. Rather than the civilian and superhero communities, Jackson’s character is portrayed in the white and black communities.

bad4

Amisu also presents an interesting idea of perhaps Daryl was being taunted as not “bad” enough because he did not want to be associated with the black community anymore. Perhaps he had lost pride in his roots and his current friend group after being submersed in the culture of the white community. Daryl assures his friends that he is still “bad” even though he does not agree with their actions. He shows how being “bad” can be a good thing – a stand of confidence and individuality. This portrays Daryl as his own kind of superhero.

bad5

He is representing both the black and white communities simultaneously, and is standing up for what he believes is right. By doing this he is showing that there is a moral obligation for society to follow regardless of skin color. Aisha Harris claims the meaning of the song “Bad” is about Daryl “making his own place” in the world (Harris). In the video, by encompassing both communities, indeed Daryl has created his own ideas, morals, and place in his world. He is fighting for individuality within the togetherness of the two different communities.

While Jackson has had many songs that have stirred viewers and formed mixed reactions, “Bad” was one that has always been targeted specifically towards the black community. Based on a true story, it emotionally appealed to viewers and brought into light the racial divide still occurring two decades after the ending of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson’s character, Daryl, is an artistic embodiment of the combination of the black and white communities and sends a message to the audience about the importance of unity within society. This unity gives him the individuality and courage to say that he is indeed “bad” and can stand up for himself against his friends. Daryl’s character is one that can be considered a superhero for he is not afraid of merging two different ideas and cultures while still maintaining his unique independence.

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5 THOUGHTS ON “STUDENT ESSAY ON “BAD”: THE SUPERHERO IN MICHAEL JACKSON’S “BAD” BY BETHANY PITTMAN”
Monika
SEPTEMBER 17, 2016 AT 9:36 PM
Great!…finally the genious behind Michael’s work is being discovered ….I give dedicated every day work for it and makes me happy that it comes to light around the globe ��…hugs from me
REPLY
kerryhennigan
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 2:44 AM
Thank you for bringing Bethany’s essay to our attention, Raven. Great that you are providing the opportunity for people to learn and appreciate Michael’s art in-depth.
REPLY
Esmeralda Rokaj
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 9:26 AM
I believe that “Bad” also touched upon the stereotype that black people are supposed to be ‘dangerous’ and criminally tough.

Daryl’s friends plan to attack that old man at the subway station. When one of them asks Daryl “Are you bad?” he also means “Are you black enough to do this?”. What Daryl does later on by saving the old man and dancing, shows that being black or bad shouldn’t be related to crimes. He does want to put black and white people on the same level, that being the level of morality and duty towards society. This isn’t devided by race or anything else. It’s everyone’s duty and this is important on fighting one of the biggest racist remarks towards black people.

The friendly hand grabbing at the end means that we can and must work together to reach that level of equality, not only on rights, but on responsibilities too.
REPLY
Kimberly Cales
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 2:51 PM
Such beautiful work!!! I am proud to have been able to enjoy this piece.
Thank you!!!!
REPLY
Elizabeth Amisu
SEPTEMBER 19, 2016 AT 6:16 AM
Dear Raven,

Thank-you for publishing this beautiful piece. I am delighted to know that Michael Jackson Studies has found such success with your students, especially with regards to culture, ethnicity and social issues. Michael Jackson’s art is still so relevant and resonant. To my mind he becomes more so as the years progress. I particularly enjoyed Bethany’s points about Michael Jackson and cultural mobility, the idea that Jackson’s work really can be used to forge more transition and mutability between cultures, instead of the ‘cultural appropriation’ we see so often today. The quote, ‘Daryl, is an artistic embodiment
of the combination of the black and white communities and sends a message to the audience about the importance of unity within society’ stayed with me for some days since I read this piece. You are surely doing magnificent work with your students.

Best wishes,

Elizabeth

Just What The Hell Is A “Respectable” Death, Anyway?

The Media-Fueled "Rivalry" Is Adding A Macabre Final Chapter.
The Media-Fueled “Rivalry” Is Adding A Macabre Final Chapter.

I was starting to feel, finally, that it was time to move on from the MJ/Prince-related topics, but with the toxicology reports from Prince’s autopsy finally in, and with the sense of closure that comes from having an official cause of death, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to comment on yet one more point of comparison between these two artists for which the media has seen fit to compare, whether fairly or not. I am talking, of course, about the matter of their deaths.

Propofol-Use

Fentanyl Citrate, a CLASS II Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the secure area of a local hospital Friday, July10, 2009. Joe Amon / The Denver Post (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

At least, with the toxicology reports in, we now have some answers as to what killed Prince-acute fentanyl toxicity. We also know that  according to the coroner’s report, it was a self administered fatal dose. That puts to rest at least one question-we know now that all of the rumors of Prince having died of a drug related death are true, and we know the drug that was the culprit. Frankly, I never bought the story of the flu (yes, the flu can certainly be nasty, but let’s get real, the chances of it killing an otherwise healthy 57-year-old with access to the best in medical care just does not compute) but it still leaves a lot of puzzling and disturbing questions, of course, which I’m sure (just as we saw with Michael) will result in continued investigations, as well as  endless conspiracy theories, tabloid stories, and future books to be written. The fact that Prince died alone, with no apparent witnesses, will no doubt only further serve to deepen the mystery of “what really happened.”  And we still don’t know the full story of the circumstances that led him down this path. The only thing we can fully ascertain is that chronic pain-the debilitating chronic pain of a performer’s body that has come from years of wearing the body down through high intensity performances-and lack of adequate health care are the primary causes. (And yes, I am aware that this may sound contradictory to what I said earlier, but there is a vast difference between being able to afford adequate health care and actually having it). And by lack of adequate health care, I mean the lack of anyone with medical credentials who cares anything for this person’s well being other than as a never ending supply of cash. If looked at from that perspective, then yes, Michael and Prince at least died with that much in common. But I think we have to be very careful about lumping both of their deaths into the same tragic mold. Yes, we might say both came to very tragic ends, but the manner in which both died bear very striking differences that have to be considered. If we rely solely on media reports, however, we are never going to get that truth. You see, the media loves nothing better than stories of tragic, fallen superstars who ultimately do themselves in due to their own inability to cope. Just look at how the media continues to perpetuate the false story of Michael Jackson having died from a “prescription drug overdose” with every story written about him, despite having had full public access to the autopsy report for nearly seven years (and yes, even despite a fully televised trial leading to the conviction of his doctor Conrad Murray on the charge of manslaughter!).

Recent Typical Media Headline From ibtimes.com:

Like Michael Jackson, Prince Was Overprescribed Drugs By ‘Friendly’ Doctor: Report

 

The truth of Michael Jackson’s death has become, unfortunately, muddled by this inaccurate reporting. Remember Michael’s own words: “If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth.” The truth, as verified by his official autopsy report, is that Michael Jackson did not die from anything even remotely resembling a prescription drug overdose. His death was a result of acute propofol intoxication, administered by another’s hands (hence the reason why his death was officially ruled as a “homicide”). In this regard, we might argue that dying from propofol intoxication is still a drug-related death. But propofol is a surgical anesthetic; it is not a prescription drug. Part of the issue I have with this constant repetition of the erroneous “death from a prescription drug overdose” is that, first of all, it is patently false; secondly, it is lazy journalism, and third, it conjures for the uninformed reader a sense that Michael, like so many troubled celebrities before him, simply self administered his own end, whether willfully or accidentally, with a handful of sleeping pills. Or else they are left with the stereotypical image of another junkie shooting himself up with a fatal overdose.

Slowly but surely, the media is writing the narrative of his death that suits them.
Slowly but surely, the media is writing the narrative of his death that suits them.

To be sure, many celebrity deaths have occurred just that way, and it is no less tragic. But what I find most disturbing in the case of Michael Jackson is the media’s determination to write the narrative of Michael’s death in the manner that suits them, while blatantly ignoring all readily available evidence that either contradicts the narrative or makes it a lot more difficult to explain. It is certainly much more convenient-and less troublesome-to simply throw around the “death by prescription drug overdose” phrase than to do any actual research or to ask the tough questions. It irks me even more when such quotes are thrown into otherwise positive pieces about Michael’s art or humanitarianism. It bothers me because even when such pieces are sympathetic (as a lot of them are) it is still perpetuating false information. The danger in this is that, just as Michael prophesied, it is a falsification that is slowly becoming an accepted truth through sheer dent of repetition. When even well meaning writers and journalists are blindly repeating the “prescription drug overdose” lie (not because of malice but because they have simply been led to believe it is an accepted fact) we know it has become a problem-at the very least, it is a problem for those of us who care about truth and who care about justice. With another June 25th anniversary fast approaching, I am dreading what I know will be another onslaught of death anniversary “tribute” articles that will no doubt, once again, continue to perpetuate the “Jackson died from an overdose of prescription drugs” lie. Already, since Prince’s death in April, there has been no shortage of articles relating his death to Michael’s. I imagine that as June 25th approaches, we will be seeing a lot more of these memorial tributes that will no doubt laud their artistry on the one hand while, in the same breath, condemning them for what will be perceived as their shared inability to cope with the pressures of fame and addiction.

Allow me to back up a bit and talk about what prompted this post. On April 21, 2016, the day that Prince died, Nancy Grace hosted a call-in segment in which she was asked about the possibility of foul play in Prince’s death. Granted, it was the caller who invited the Michael Jackson comparison but it was Nancy Grace who chose to give the off-the-cuff and grossly misinformed answer that no, their deaths (like their lives) couldn’t be compared. Prince, she said, had died a “respectable death” and “wasn’t strung out on drugs; he didn’t need propofol to go to sleep.” She went on to speak of Prince as being “normal like us” (my reaction to that: since when?” and further insulted Michael’s work ethic by needlessly adding that “Prince went to work everyday” (never mind, I suppose, that Michael died while in the midst of a grueling rehearsal schedule). She also made a point of saying that Prince was someone who had remained “in control” of his life.  Actually, I would agree with that statement but for reasons quite different than hers.

I know that I am probably going to get an onslaught of comments about how we shouldn’t get worked up over anything Nancy Grace says, and that her opinions are basically worthless. But all the same, the comments are troublesome because they serve as a microcosm for the media in general and for the prevailing attitudes and double standards in reporting on Michael Jackson’s life or death. It also troubles me because this was the same woman who covered the Murray trial extensively for HLN and who knows the in’s and out’s of all the ugly information that surfaced in that trial; the same woman who went on nightly tirades against Conrad Murray for leaving Michael to die, as she put it, “surrounded by his own urine.” Her rants then were all in favor of Murray’s conviction, and Michael was the victim whose life had been taken. Now, suddenly, three years later,  she seems to have conveniently forgotten all of that, and it’s back to Michael’s death as an orchestrated will of his own inherently weak character.

Vitriolic (But Truthful!) Response to Nancy Grace’s Comments From a Prince Fan

Well, it wasn’t even within twenty-four hours of Nancy Grace’s tirade when the reports began to leak that Prince’s death was being investigated as a possible drug overdose (among many other crazy rumors that quickly spread throughout the media and tabloids). I bided my time, however, determined not to prematurely jump on that wagon until the official toxicology reports were in. Now that they are, I have to ask-is Nancy Grace eating another crow sandwich? And does it taste as nasty as the one she had to swallow on June 13th, 2005?

Don’t get me wrong, Prince’s death was a terrible tragedy. So was Michael’s. Any death, we might argue, is tragic unless, maybe, for the people who get to make it past ninety and who expire peacefully in bed surrounded by family. My real issue-and motivation for writing this piece-is that when it comes to the celebrity world and untimely deaths, it seems ludicrous to somehow hold up one celebrity’s manner of death as superior to another’s. And of all the “MJ vs. Prince” points of comparison-some fun, some intriguing, some ridiculous and some just inane-this comparison is probably one that has to rank among the most disturbing. It only goes to show that even when it comes to the manner in which a celebrity exits this life, Michael is still somehow held to an unfair double standard. Prince certainly didn’t die anymore or less of a “respectable” death than Michael Jackson, and depending on one’s view of these things, there were certainly many commanalities as well as important differences.  In this post, I would like to look at some of those important differences, and why their deaths cannot be simply lumped into the same category. But I will also examine those important commonalities, as well, which I do think must serve as a vital warning of what is happening in the medical profession in regards to celebrity care.

First of all, we have to keep in mind that we still do not have all of the facts yet about Prince’s death. Many media outlets have been falsely reporting that Prince’s official autopsy report has been released. It hasn’t. We still do not have a full autopsy report, nor the toxicology report. What has been released to the media is simply a coroner medical report press release, and that press release only states some very basic information. It does not go into the full clinical details of the autopsy procedure or its findings. So it is not a lot to go on, actually. But for the time being it is all we have. And based on that information, we  at least know the official cause of death as well as the official coroner ruling-accidental (a key component I will be examining).

However, Michael Jackson’s full autopsy report has been public record for some time, as well as his full toxicology report, and those documents are a key component for looking at important differences in how he and Prince died, and why they died. While much of this information is going to be old news to MJ fans, it bears repeating here due to the media’s reluctance to discuss the real facts of Michael’s death. That reluctance has continued to perpetuate myths that are only growing-rather than diminishing-with every passing year, especially given the media’s refusal to treat with any degree of seriousness the official coroner ruling of “homicide” (let alone the fact that prosecutor David Walgreen had lobbied hard to get a charge of second degree murder against Conrad Murray, rather than manslaughter).

But let’s look at what we have, and what we do know.

Michael Jackson Coroner Medical Report:

michael autopsy3

Prince Coroner Medical Report:

prince_autopsy_report

As these two official documents show, their manner of deaths were completely different, and rendered under completely different circumstances. The only similarity is that both died from some form of chemical toxicity. But Prince’s death was ruled to be caused by a self-administered fatal dose of fentanyl, a powerful  opioid whose potency is roughly equivalent to heroin, and in fact, is often mixed with heroin or sold as a heroin substitute.  The coroner ruling of the death was accidental. If we rule out all of the various theories of suicide and murder (although I don’t think those can ever be ruled out completely) this means that Prince, acting of his own free will, chose to administer the drug that ended his life. He probably didn’t mean to die (though I have to admit, I do find many of the details around his death a bit odd, such as the all black clothing and being found in the elevator: that could have only been intentional or else one of the greatest coincidences among pop star deaths) but the end result was the same.

Now let’s look at what Michael Jackson’s coroner medical report reveals. The cause of death is listed as ” acute propofol intoxication.” Propofol, usually marketed under the brand name of Diprivan, is not an opioid but a surgical anesthetic. It can, of course, mimic some of the effects of an opioid, but its general purpose is to render unconsciousness, not euphoria. And unlike fentanyl, it is seldom used for recreational purposes (as Wikipedia reports, largely because of the monitoring that is required to use the drug safely). In the small percentage of cases where the drug  has been known to be used recreationally, it has mostly been by-surprise, surprise!- those in the medical profession, whose work allows them easy access to the drug. Obviously, for the casual drug user, even if the effects of injecting propofol were worth the risks, the sheer unavailability of propofol outside of a hospital setting makes it an unlikely choice for simply “getting high.” It is not, in other words, to be confused with painkiller opioids or prescription meds that can be easily obtained with a prescription (legit or otherwise). This brings us to the second important difference between how Michael and Prince died.

Michael’s death was ruled as a “homicide,” meaning he did not die by his own hand-an important distinction. The medical report clearly spells out: “Intravenous injection by another.” And although Murray’s defense tried to make the argument that Michael had self injected (among many conflicting and confusing theories they desperately offered up at trial) the report clarified exactly why and how the ruling of “homicide,” rather than “accidental,” was justified. Indeed, it is naive to think that the medical and coroner professionals who were putting this report together would not have considered the possibility of a self administered injection. Thus, considerable space was dedicated in the report to explaining the reasons why the determination of of a homicide ruling was appropriate, and why the idea of a self administered injection was all but impossible:

michael autopsy 7 standard of care

 

michael autopsy 6 standard of care

It was this official ruling which paved the way for Michael’s death being investigated as a homicide, eventually resulting in the conviction of Conrad Murray.

But what about the so-called “benzodiazepine effect?” Would that not justify the claims of a “prescription drug overdose” death? Not exactly. The report clearly states that the benzodiazepines detected were not direct causes of death, and are consistent with the reports of what Murray had given him that night. Even further revealing is the toxicology report. Of all the chemical substances that were tested for, only six came back positive (discounting Lidocaine, which is simply a drug used to prepare the area of injection for propofol, and is routine procedure for its administration, especially for patients with smaller veins who are exceptionally sensitive to pain-as Michael reportedly was). If we discount propofol-the known direct cause of death, the Lidocaine (standard procedure) and Ephedrine (generally only used as a mild stimulant-Michael had died as a direct result of cardiac and respiratory depression, so we can rule that out)) this leaves only the drugs we already know, via Murray’s statement, that were administered to Michael that night by his hand, and most of those, including midazolam, are also part of routine procedure in conjunction with the administering of propofol:

michael toxicology2

 

But what about those who will argue that Murray was merely abiding by Michael’s wishes? If I have heard that argument-“If it hadn’t been Murray, it would have been some other doctor”-once, I have heard it a million times. For Conrad Murray, it remains his personal mantra; indeed, his entire defense was built on it. He has already given a media interview to Inside Edition  since Prince’s death, claiming that “Prince’s doctor will need  to get  a good attorney” (why the media even continues to give this man a platform is beyond me, but that is an old argument I have already beaten in many previous posts).

Why Does The Media Continue To Give This Convicted Killer A Platform?
Why Does The Media Continue To Give This Convicted Killer A Platform?

This is precisely why the Michael Jackson death case remains so muddled-and it is the loophole through which the media continues to justify its relentless insistence on lumping his death with other similar celebrity self-administered overdose deaths (Prince’s included). But even if we grant that Murray wasn’t the first doctor to introduce to Michael the idea of using propofol as a sleep aid, we still have to consider the peculiarities of this particular case. During the AEG trial, it was revealed that Murray had been administering this “treatment” to Michael on a nightly basis for over two months, an unprecedented experiment in the human body’s tolerance for this drug, and which had resulted according to expert witness  testimony during the trial as a kind of slow, systematic poisoning. Whether it was intentional or not is beside the point.  However one looks at it, the end result was the same-Michael had died as a direct result of his treatment at another’s hands. Any reasonable person would see this goes well beyond the more typical scenario of a doctor (or many doctors) whose biggest culpability is writing excessive prescriptions for their celebrity patients. We could argue, certainly, that those doctors are still culpable for those deaths, but it is a far more distant culpability than the direct actions of a physician who takes his patient’s life with his own hands, and as a direct result of his own actions. One can argue that the patient still makes a conscious choice when they decide to take the prescribed pills, especially in excessive dosage. In Michael’s unique case, the drugs were being directly administered by a doctor who certainly should have known better, and who had an obligation according to the Hippocratic oath to look out for the well being of his patient (regardless of how much money he was receiving, or what the patient may want).

But we also cannot afford to completely dismiss the similarities of their deaths. Both the untimely deaths of Michael and Prince are part of the new wave of musician deaths that have resulted-not from recreational drug overdoses as was common in years past-but as a result of prescription drugs and/or as a direct result of physician malpractice and greed. From an Inquisitor article on the rise of celebrity prescription overdoses (yes, again, another article that lumps the death of Michael Jackson in with all the other “celebrity prescription overdose deaths, but bear with me-this part of the article is worth quoting):

The Perfect Storm

A “perfect storm” is defined as a rare combination of events or circumstances that converge to create an unusually bad situation. In the case of these celebrities, in pretty much every single case, their perfect storm consisted of the same three attributes: access to doctors that would prescribe them anything; money to be able to afford it; yes-men surrounding them who didn’t have the courage to tell them they shouldn’t do it, and a lot of alone time, or a combination of the last two.

CNBC reported on a survey that was released by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found “44 percent of Americans said they personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers.” Most Americans believe the government is not doing enough to provide health care resources for the people who are addicted to prescription painkillers (66 percent), or heroin (62 percent).
Read more at http://www.inquisitr.com/3061420/celebrities-prescription-drugs-and-the-rise-in-overdose-deaths/#7eGJGcOk43614srE.99

 

What we do know of Prince’s situation is that he had actively sought help for his addiction, but that “help” arrived too late. His body was discovered by the son of the addiction specialist who had arrived into town that very morning to begin rehabilitation therapy. The media was also quick to pounce on another morbid fact after the medical report was released: The paparazzi shots taken of Prince as he left a local Walgreen’s pharmacy on Wednesday evening, April 20th, 2016, evidently show him wearing the same black clothes he would later be found in, and most likely carrying the bag containing the fatal contents.

The Mantra of The Paparazzi: "You Just Never Know When That Random Pic You Snapped Is Going To Prove Valuable"
The Mantra of The Paparazzi: “You Just Never Know When That Random Pic You Snapped Is Going To Prove Valuable”

While this post may have been inspired, to some extent, as a defense reaction to Nancy Grace’s comments and my continued irritation with the media’s continual insistence on ignoring the facts of Michael Jackson’s death, it is definitely not my intent to pass judgement on Prince for the way he died. Rather, I think we do owe it to ourselves to examine their commonalities. However we may add or subtract the details, the fact remains that we have lost two amazing music legends way too soon, and it is a crime against humanity if we don’t at least pause for a moment to ask ourselves why we lost both Michael Jackson and Prince before either could make it past their fifth decade. Both deaths occurred without reliable witnesses, compounding the mystery and speculation. The only ironic difference we might note is that if Prince hadn’t been left alone-if someone had been on the premises to witness the onset of a medical emergency-he would probably be alive today. On the other hand, if Michael had been alone (without Conrad Murray present) he would probably still be alive. Personally, I have my own theories about the circumstances of Michael’s death, as I related in this post last year, and conversely, I have found some of the circumstances surrounding Prince’s death to be disturbing and puzzling as well, but since the official accounts are all that we can go on without entering the realm of conspiracy theories, that is where I will leave it for now. Ultimately, the thing they shared most was pain-not necessarily emotional, though we can’t ignore that aspect of it-but the sheer physical pain of a dancer’s body that has worn itself down through years of demands. By far, one of the best (certainly one of the most profound and sympathetic) pieces to come out since Prince’s death was an article from Lorraine Berry titled “Prince Did Not Die From Pain Pills-He Died From Chronic Pain.” I would highly urge everyone to click on the link and read the article in its entirety. I can only quote a small excerpt here, but it is an excerpt that certainly highlights what I have said here:

Prince was not addicted to pain medication. Prince had a medical condition — chronic pain — which is criminally under-treated. It is also a medical problem that is more likely to be reacted to with stigma and condescension, even challenges about the patient’s moral character, or, if male, masculinity. Pain is still the condition that we treat by telling its sufferers to just “suck it up,” or “maintain a stiff upper lip,” or to stop acting like a “wuss.” And yet, when someone dies from complications of the disease — for that is what chronic pain is — we react with shock and pity and anger that the person died from a drug overdose. Some outlets make money off our confusion about overdose and medications and our fascination with drugs.

In another interesting excerpt, Berry notes the racial discrepancies in the medical profession for dealing with pain and very real medical issues:

Into the mix must surely be added the element of race. Prince was a black man. Strong racial disparities in how doctors and other medical staff respond to pain in the emergency room has been documented. For example, a recent study published in one of the most prestigious pediatrics journals studied the treatment of appendicitis, a condition that is often initially suspected after a “chandelier test.” In medical slang, if a doctor places her hand on the pain point in the lower abdomen affected by the pain of an inflamed appendix, the patient will try to jump up into the metaphoric chandelier on the ceiling above their head.
And yet, even here, black kids cannot get a break.

“Our findings suggest that there are racial disparities in opioid administration to children with appendicitis,” wrote one of the lead researchers, Dr. Monika Goyal.

“Our findings suggest that although clinicians may recognize pain equally across racial groups, they may be reacting to the pain differently by treating black patients with nonopioid analgesia, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, while treating white patients with opioid analgesia for similar pain.”
Similar studies have documented that African Americans’ chest pain is less likely to be diagnosed correctly as a heart attack. Other studies have attempted to measure whether African Americans have a “lower pain threshold.” Similar studies about why women’s pain is not taken seriously in emergency rooms have also been produced.

However, while treating Prince’s death with unusual insight and compassion, even Berry is guilty of trying to hold his death as somehow “above” Michael Jackson’s when she casually lumps Michael’s death in with Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, etc as typical celebrity “drug deaths” from heroin and other illegal substances. Ironically, she chastises the media for “pushing Prince toward that precipice over which we have pushed Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, Michael Jackson, and every other artist who has died from drugs in the past century” while she, herself, contributes to the continued confusion and media misrepresentation of Michael Jackson’s death. In some ways, as much as I loved the rest of her article, it is merely another variation of a trope we have seen far too often, and far too disturbingly, in the last two months-the need to build Prince up by tearing Michael down. But when this even comes down to the manner of their deaths, I say something has to give.

First, we need to look at the facts. Second, we need to get past this societal tendency to judge-not only in judging other peoples’ pain, but in judging their tolerance for pain as well as the methods they may choose to cope. When I look at the deaths of both Michael and Prince, and the means by which both were taken out, one fact stands abundantly clear above all others-both died as a result of craving oblivion. That is what both fentanyl and propofol provide. I have long wondered (and granted this is just a personal theory of mine) if part of Michael’s attraction to propofol over other means of sleep aids may have been desire for the complete, dreamless state it provides (even dreams are a state of consciousness, and can be terrifying; propofol simply brings on a state of temporary non-existence). And we cannot begin to understand why either of them died until we are prepared to understand the root causes of their need to obliterate pain and to have oblivion from the demands of consciousness. In that regard, I think we have a long, long way to go-and until we get there, maybe it is best to refrain from our shallow judgments. How do we begin to judge what is a “respectable” death, especially in the celebrity world? I’m reminded of the comments which that old geezer Gene Simmons recently took heat for, when he likewise tried to claim that “David Bowie’s death was a tragedy; Prince’s death was just pathetic.” Aside from the fact that he was speaking out prematurely (Prince’s autopsy results weren’t even in at the time) there are simply too many fallacies in a statement like that. How do we know that even David Bowie’s liver cancer wasn’t a direct or indirect result of his lifestyle and his partying days? The answer is simply that we don’t.  Every death, ultimately, has its cause-even a so-called “respectable” death like cancer. In the end, it all comes down to a common factor-the lungs stop breathing, and the heart stops beating. That is all. Death shows no favoritism, either in who it claims or how, or why. True, some deaths are perhaps more avoidable than others, and that is the gauge by which we tend to judge them, especially for celebrities whose entire lives have already been an open book for our greedy consumption. In the case of Michael and Prince, we owe it to both of them to continue putting the pressure on unethical doctors who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of celebrity patients. Their deaths and the circumstances that led to them are indeed very different in many critical ways-certainly we can’t afford to overlook the crucial difference between a homicide case and a self-administered accidental overdose. But it is equally irresponsible to ignore their tragic similarities.

CfncmkLWEAEP4IwPerhaps, ultimately, we owe it to both of them to stop comparing their deaths, especially simply for the sake of exploitative sensationalism , or simply to add yet one more final, macabre chapter to the “Who Is Better” rivalry.prince-1-671x377

 

If we have to talk about why they died, we had better be prepared to look equally hard and critically at our own failings, and journalists, especially, must be held accountable for inaccurate reporting that tries to cast every premature celebrity death  in the same mold. If not, then we are better served by investing our energy and focus to where it matters most-cherishing their lives and celebrating the legacy they left.

MJ: Musican Extraordinaire

pianoWhat words come to mind when you think of Michael Jackson? Singer, dancer, and entertainer would be high on most peoples’ lists, perhaps followed by songwriter, actor, and philanthropist. But musician? Although he is sometimes referred to as such on various biographical write-ups (and even on his death certificate!) the question of whether the term “musician” in the strictest technical sense of the word could aptly be applied to Michael remains a highly debatable subject among music critics and fans alike. While no one disputes his superior abilities as a singer and dancer, the respect due him as a musician still lags far behind, mostly because he was never seen as a “musician’s musician.” He wasn’t a performer who stood in front of a microphone with a guitar strapped to him, or the type of performer who could be just as comfortable sitting onstage at a piano. And with the still recent death of Prince-a true musician if ever there was one-igniting again all of the “Who is Better” comparisons, it is a subject that has once again put an unfortunate (and, I think, completely unnecessary) spotlight on the matter. As I stated in my previous post, it is a complete myth that Michael Jackson did not or could not play instruments. That he purposely chose to not make musicianship a central part of his performing aesthetic has nothing to do with his talent or abilities when it came to playing musical instruments (and for the record, in all fairness we must remember that Prince and Michael did approach performing from two totally different aesthetics, neither of which was “better” than the other-like anything else, these issues are a matter of personal taste and preference).

A recent comment I saw on Youtube, on a countdown video of the “Top Ten Greatest Artists of All Time” in which Michael came in at #2, is sadly all too typical of the kind of ignorant, garbage comments that I see whenever the subject  comes up of Michael Jackson as an artist “worthy” of the lofty status he is often given:

+Sarumoh Bolu tell me again what instruments Micheal played? what albums did he even write more then half the songs? fact remains he didn’t create music, never wrote whole albums without the help of writers and didn’t change music like the beatles or elvis Presley. They’re being kind by having him at #2. it’s the beatles at 1 then everyone else. Michael wouldn’t crack top 3 on my list. he’s not an artist he’s an entertainer
Well, if you care to follow the full debate on that topic, it goes on at quite some length. Personal taste aside, this poster was wrong on just about every argument he tried to make. But since these wearisome and ill informed comments, steeped in ill informed myths, just keep coming up with no apparent end in sight, I decided it was high time to address the issue in what I hope will be the definitive post on this topic-and, hopefully, one that can finally allow us to move forward in our cultural appreciation of Michael Jackson, musician. Yes, I said musician. 

 

In this post, I will explore three important angles that must be considered before we can address the question of Michael’s “musicianship”-just how talented was Michael when it came to the ability to pick up an instrument and play; what actually constitutes the definition of a “musician” anyway; and just how fair or necessary are these kinds of comparisons for an artist of Jackson’s caliber?

In the past, when I’ve allowed myself to get dragged into these arguments (not surprisingly often with Prince fanatics or trolls/haters similar to the commentor above who have been brainwashed in the “rockism” tropes to the point that they think a skinny guy with a guitar is the only kind of artist with credibility) I have usually pointed out that Michael did play instruments-we know this, as he is credited on many of his albums on a multitude of instruments-but that in all fairness, he  recognized that his abilities were mediocre at best. This would usually then evolve into a defense that anyone with his astounding vocal and dancing abilities certainly shouldn’t owe any apologies to anyone. But reading through the similar comments by fans made in “defense” of Richard Lynche’s comments only reminded me of how woefully confused and under informed even some fans are about the subject of Michael’s musicianship. And I will admit, I have counted myself among them because my own opinions on the matter have continued to evolve as I have learned more and discovered more.

First off, I am no longer so sure that Michael’s abilities as an instrumentalist were “fair to mediocre at best.” In the past few years, I have heard some pretty amazing samples of his playing, especially on piano and keyboard. As I mentioned in my previous post, my first real revelation was the release of the Bad-era “Don’t Stop Messin’ Around” track which features Michael playing a beautiful and sprightly Bossa Nova style piano hook. At the time of the track’s release, as part of the 2012 Bad 25 project, recording engineer Matt Forger gave an interview in which he stated (referring to Jackson’s choice to play piano on the track) “He could do more than he ever really let people know.”

I think this statement may sum up perfectly why we didn’t have more firsthand examples of Michael Jackson’s technical musicianship prowess. In short, the evidence points not to lack of ability, but rather, to a conscious choice to focus on other aspects of his art that he felt needed his focus more. And as per Forger’s statement, it is possible that modesty (and perhaps his level of confidence) played a key role. That is to say, it is entirely possible that Michael was much more proficient in his playing of instruments than even he would give himself credit. But then again, it is also entirely possible that, confident or not, it simply didn’t interest him that much. There is ample evidence that he loved to “play around” with various instruments, and no doubt could gain proficiency quite easily with his natural rhythm and keen ear, but as for the dedication and practice it takes to truly master a certain instrument, he simply may not have had the attention span for it. Michael has always struck me as an artist who was far more interested in the raw composition of a piece and in its production than in the tedious process of plunking out its instrumentation. The stories of his amazing composition process, as a virtual one man symphony who could hear entire compositions in his head and dictate the sound of every instrument via his own vocalizations into a tape recorder, are legendary. One may realistically question that with such a rare and gifted ability to use his voice as an entire orchestra (one that I honestly do not think has been matched by any other artist that I am aware of) why would there be any need to tediously plunk out a composition on a single instrument (as most musician/composers do) to arrive at a finished product? Why would he when he could just as easily work out the entire arrangement-harmonies, chorus, lead and rhythm-with his vocal abilities alone?

But again, this is where we must be careful to separate interest and motivation from aptitude. This is something I know more than a little about, as a teacher who works with students on a daily basis. A student can have proficient aptitude and ability for a certain skill-such as creative writing, for example- but often if they are not motivated by what they perceive as a practical outcome for the skill, they aren’t going to devote much time to perfecting it. At best for this student, creative writing may become a hobby-what we might call a mustard seed talent-but not a lifetime profession.

Given the evidence I now have, I am more inclined to put Michael in this category-as a musician who, at best, viewed his own musicianship as a hobby or sideline to his more “serious” art of composing, singing, dancing, and performing. There is nothing wrong with that; it was obviously a conscious choice from an artist who knew that to be a true master, one can’t be a jack of all trades.

A good analogy might be, again, to drag out some of the Prince/MJ comparisons. Both could play instruments, but Prince obviously had a far more developed aptitude because he chose to focus on his musicianship. Both could dance, and I know that Prince had some amazing James Brown-influenced moves when he chose to cut loose, but dance was not a principle focus of his art in the same way that it was for Michael. Both were fair actors, though not great (Michael certainly had more potential for growth, as evidenced in performances like The Wiz) and Prince received terrible reviews for his directing debut with Under The Cherry Moon. My point here is that no matter how great any artist may be in his/her area of expertise, it is virtually impossible for any artist to excel in all fields of entertainment or art. The more likely reality is that they will be great at one or two, competent in a few other areas, and will totally suck at some. Another good case in point would be Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who played piano on many Queen tracks and was obviously a competent player, but according to many sources was always very self deprecating about his abilities and, over time, focused on them less and less in order to put more energy into his performing.

guitar2
Learning Guitar Chords In The Late 70’s

But it also begs the question again of why Michael Jackson, perhaps more than other artist, is often held to this rather unbalanced and unfair standard. After all, when we think of artists like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who were both renowned as great dancers, I don’t hear anyone bashing them or belittling their talent because they didn’t play instruments.

If we go back to our Prince/MJ analogy, it may be fair to say that Prince was certainly a competent dancer, but I never found his style to be especially unique (and again, to be fair, he never made his dancing the centerpiece attraction of his performances). And to be equally  fair, we might argue that Michael’s musicianship wasn’t especially unique even if he was quite good by most standards. But remember, for Michael, “good” didn’t cut it-he always wanted to be the best at everything he did, and therein, I think, lies the key. It wasn’t enough for Michael to be a competent musician. I think part of him knew he was good, but he may have honestly felt that he hadn’t the patience and dedication to become “great” at it-and being the perfectionist that he was, this may have been what held him back from showcasing his musicianship talents more.

However, typing the above sentence reminded me of something that his friend David Nordahl had to say during a public Q&A session that I attended in 2010. He told the amusing story of how Michael wanted to paint-in fact, the very basis of their friendship was that Michael wanted David to teach him how to paint. But although Michael had the aptitude, he didn’t have the patience. Nordahl recalled that Michael  would get frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t produce something “great” within a few days; something that met with his own standard of what “great art” should be. And that frustration, naturally, led to discouragement. He simply didn’t have the focus to become a great painter because his focus, as always, was on his music.

And yet, when we look at the many sketches and paintings Michael left behind, the initial reaction of many is a stunned disbelief that he possessed such a talent. His best sketches, many completed at a very young age, show a natural ability that still, to this day, astounds many art critics.

Michael Did This Sketch Of Dr. Martin Luther King At A Young Age
Michael Did This Sketch Of Dr. Martin Luther King At A Young Age

Obviously, art would become a kind of secondary talent for Michael that took a backseat to singing and dancing, but who’s to say what he might have been able to do with this talent had he chosen to put the same amount of focus and discipline into it that he applied to his singing and dancing?

So what we know of Michael’s art skills may shed an important light, as well, on his musicianship skills and how he viewed his abilities. Just as with his drawings and paintings, there was an obvious natural talent that was never really developed to its full potential due to the fact that he didn’t have the disciplined focus for it that he had for his music, I think we might safely say the same for his musicianship skills.

But even if we sum it up to such a pat explanation, it still doesn’t answer the big question about Michael’s abilities as a musician: Was he simply an all-too-modest genius who never really gave himself permission to shine, or merely a modest talent who recognized his own limitations?

Playing Organ
Playing Organ

For that answer, we can only look to the evidence we have-those rare instances when Michael did play an instrument publicly, or informal, private moments that were captured on tape or video, as well as first hand testimonies from those who were privileged to hear him play.

One of the earliest examples that I am aware of is this 1992 Pepsi commercial which featured Michael playing a stripped down, piano version of “I’ll Be There.”

Although detractors might argue that this simple, melodic riff is not an especially challenging number to play, there can be little doubt that his sparse playing perfectly emotes the mood of the song as surely as his beautifully understated vocal.  Of course, being that this was a filmed commercial, the playing is not live; it is quite obviously a synched performance to a pre-recorded backing track, so again, perhaps not the best “evidence” per se to convince detractors. Many of the comments on this video point out that we still don’t actually see his hands on the piano. But since this was only a mimed performance to begin with, what difference would it make? What is important is that Michael did do his own playing on that pre-recorded track, just as he did his own vocals, so whether this can count as a “live” performance is really a moot point. The track itself still stands as a testament to his ability to play the instrument. And the fact that  this commercial aired on national TV should certainly stand as even more compelling evidence that the public did see this side of Michael, albeit that it was an all too rare glimpse.

Early Photo Of Michael Playing Keyboard
Early Photo Of Michael Playing Keyboard

Although Michael was said to be quite apt on drums and guitar, it was the piano (and conversely other keyboard instruments such as organs and synthesizers) that he seemed most drawn to. Every home in which he lived always had at least one piano-often more-and these were by no means idle decorations, as there are numerous videos that showcase him playing in informal settings, usually for friends or his children.

piano7

In this rare video showcasing Michael’s son Prince, Michael can be heard (and is briefly glimpsed) in the background playing Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” As with so many of these examples, it is an all too brief snippet that still doesn’t really provide us enough to reach a foregone conclusion as to our question’s answer, but it’s enough to let us know that at the very least, he was definitely quite good on the piano-which alone should be sufficient to quash the silly notions that he couldn’t play anything at all, or was capable only of very basic chords.

An even more telling glimpse is revealed when looking at the liner notes of his albums where the musicians are credited. An excellent case in point would be the HIStory album, for which it is known that he did receive credit for playing on many of the tracks. Here is an online version that I found of the HIStory  liner notes. For the sake of brevity, I will only include here the section that is relevant to the current discussion-the musicians’ credits. These are, strictly speaking, the credits for anyone who had a hands-on role in contributing musically to the album’s tracks. I have boldfaced where Michael’s musician credits appear:

Piano Performances by David Foster, Brad Buxer, BIG “Jim” Wright, and Jonathan Mackey.

Keyboards and Synthesizers: Michael Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, David Foster, Steve “Yada” Porcaro, David Paich, Bill Bottrell, Dallas Austin, R. Kelly, Rene, Brad Buxer, Simon Franglen, Greg Phillinganes, Lafayette Carthon, Michael Boddicker, Chuck Wild, Rob Arbitter, Gary Adante, John Barnes, and Randy Waldman.

Synthesizer Programming: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Simon Franglen, Steve Porcaro, Brad Buxer, Peter Mokran, Michael Boddicker, Chuck Wild, Andrew Scheps, Rick Sheppard, Rob Hoffman, Bobby Brooks, Jeff Bova, Chris Palmero, Jason Miles, Arnie Schulze, and Gregg Mangiafico.

Drum Programming: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Peter Mokran, and Andrew Scheps.
Synclavier Programming: Andrew Scheps and Simon Franglen.

Guitars: Slash, Nile Rodgers, Trevor Rabin, Paul Jackson Jr., Steve Lukather, Bill Bottrell, Jeff Mirinov, Michael Jackson, Rob Hoffman, Michael Thompson, Jen Leigh.

Drums and Percussion: Michael Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Bill Bottrell, Buddy Williams, Bruce Swedien, Simon Franglen, Rene, Chuck Wild, Bobby Brooks, Bryan Loren, Omar Hakim, and Steve Ferrone.

Bass: David Paich, Colin Wolfe, Louis Johnson, Wayne Pedzwater, Keith Rouster, Doug Grigsby, and Guy Pratt.

Synth Bass: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Greg Phillinganes.

Horns: Larry Williams, Jerry Hey, Gary Grant, Bill Reichenbach, and Kim Hutchcroft.

Organ: BIG “Jim” Wright.
Violin Solo: Paul Peabody.

Interestingly, musician credits are generally ordered according to the amount they actually contributed to the track, and here we see Michael’s name listed first in at least two categories, keyboards and drums. This would mean that his role on those two instruments was quite prevalent throughout the recording process. And although his guitar contributions are significantly less, he is still credited as one of the album’s featured guitarists. That track was most likely the opening track “Scream,” for which Michael was credited as having played most of the major instruments-“keyboard, guitar, drums and percussion” according to the allmichaeljackson.com website.

Michael Posed With A Beautiful Flying V For The "Scream" Video, Which He Later Smashes In True Rock Star Style...
Michael Posed With A Beautiful Flying V For The “Scream” Video, Which He Later Smashes In True Rock Star Style…

Wait a minute-most of the major instruments on that track? “Scream” is definitely one of the most musically complex tracks of the entire album, with its mixture of industrial beats and funk. Keeping in mind this fresh perspective, let’s take another listen to this classic track. I’m going to post here a more simplified version featuring only the track and lyrics, so that we won’t be distracted by the visual element of its landmark video. The purpose for now is to focus on its instrumentation.

...But Did He Actually Play It On The Track?
…But Did He Actually Play It On The Track?

In listening to this track solely for its instrumentation, there are at least three really interesting segments. One is the poppy, Beatles-esque guitar bridge that occurs about 2:23, right after the line “I think I might go insane.” In Michael’s 1993 Mexican deposition he gave one of the most articulate and intelligent definitions of a song’s bridge that I have ever heard, describing it as the moment in the song when everything changes in order to take the listener to a new place, so that when they return to the main verse and chorus, everything is fresh again and yet elevated somehow.

In this section of the song, the mini guitar bridge serves that purpose. It both elevates the track and yet brings it refreshingly to earth after all of the synth-infused grindings and whooshings of the verse and chorus. It is a wonderfully underplayed riff that invokes the same “spacey” vibe that would later become the video’s theme, like someone playing just slightly against the pull of gravity. Unlike most guitar solos, it doesn’t release the song’s tension, however, which is interesting; if anything, the riff merely pulls the song tighter here. It only lasts a few seconds, but manages to stand out as a classic pop guitar riff. This is intensified in the song’s main bridge, in which the guitar finally releases the song’s tension via an understated but nevertheless impressive  heavy metal breakdown that is just as abruptly reeled back in at 3:26 with a series of soaring lead chords that again invoke the weightless feel of floating in space. It’s quite interesting, also, to see how many Youtube videos have been posted of heavy metal guitarists covering this track, many of them putting their own spin on it. (It is equally amusing to see how many comments will usually pop up asking who played guitar on the original track!). The fact that this track is one so frequently covered by metal guitarists says something in itself; that, obviously, Michael created a sound in ‘Scream” that other musicians have been trying to imitate or better for twenty-one years. Here is another example in which a website dedicated to serious musicianship has a post from someone wanting to emulate the sounds accomplished in “Scream.”

However, before we get too carried away with giving Michael all of the credit here, keep in mind that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are also credited on the track, and there seems to be some contradiction among sources as to who actually played what. Michael has been credited as playing instruments on a number of other tracks, as well, including “Morphine,” “Break of Dawn,” and “Threatened.” But as some have been quick to argue, an album credit doesn’t tell us a lot because credits can be divvied up in numerous ways-for example, if Michael simply beat boxed the rhythm to a guitarist or the beat to a drummer, that in itself could have been merit for a credit. Unfortunately, we don’t have video footage of these recording sessions that would definitively “confirm” the question once and for all, and even the first hand accounts of engineers, producers, and other musicians who were there have been often frustratingly contradictory, with some claiming that they saw or heard Michael play “beautifully” while others will insist they never knew him to play an instrument at all.

Another unfortunate factor is that, since Michael never played publicly enough for listeners to distinguish a specific style or technique to associate with him, it becomes even more difficult to ascertain when we are actually hearing Michael play an instrument, as opposed to someone else.

However, we still have “Don’t Be Messin’ Around”-a track on which Michael’s piano contribution has been fully confirmed-on which to stake our case. And it stands to reason that if Michael could play this well on a 1980’s era track, he would have only gotten better as time went on.

In a way, it makes more sense than not to think of Michael as a musician. Let’s not forget that Michael came from an entire family of musicians. His father was an accomplished guitarist; he grew up surrounded by brothers and cousins who played instruments; instruments were always a part of the Jackson household. It’s naive to think that Michael could have grown up in such an atmosphere without at least having the curiosity to pick up an instrument from time to time.

Young Michael On Drums
Young Michael On Drums

It is also quite easy to believe that with his genetics, he was bound to have some degree of natural music talent beyond just singing and dancing. But because he was so good at what he did as The Jackson 5 “front man” there was not a lot of encouragement to develop any latent musicianship skills he may have had. After all, Jackie, Jermaine, and Tito held down the musicianship end of the group.  All the same, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming from such a musical background, with Michael’s known curiosity and with so many instruments always within easy reach, having no aptitude or even inclination to play an instrument.

So, to sum up the answer to our question, we know at least one thing for sure. Michael could play instruments, and by the late 1980’s and 1990’s, had become quite adept. What remains more dubious is whether he was truly a Modest Mouse who kept a genius level ability hidden away in the closet, or simply a competent talent who knew his limitations. Until better evidence surfaces, I am still more inclined toward the latter, although I think the few examples we have are certainly intriguing and enough to make one wonder if there was indeed more to Michael’s talent than we’ll ever know.

So what is the true definition of a musician? Merriam Webster defines a musician as someone who “writes, sings or plays music.” By that definition alone, Michael certainly qualifies as a musician-he did all three! Furthermore, I think there is often a tendency to under estimate just how complex his composing abilities actually were. I often see comments where people will brush off his abilities by saying, “Oh, he just told other people what to play.” No thought is given to just how complex that process could be, or how completely intact his ideas came to him. Michael could always “hear” the sounds he wanted for the piece, but communicating those ideas could be challenging since he didn’t read music nor did he have formal training, so of course there are those rather humorous stories of Michael trying to communicate to a musician that it needs to sound “like moonlight” or “like a summer breeze on the beach.”

Michael Famously Demonstrates His Composing Process To Diane Sawyer, Who Called Him A “Hard Wired, 48-Track Digitally Mastered Human”

However, listening to his demos-which he often recorded in his home studio, and for which he usually provided all leads, harmonies and rhythm through vocalizations and crude instrumentation (sometimes out of bottles or whatever else was handy)-are perhaps the best key to understanding his true creative process. In these demos, for example, you can hear just how “complete” these famous tracks came to him, and how he already had much of their musical backbone structure intact  before even going into the studio.

“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” Home Demo (1978)

Finished Studio Version (1979)

“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Home Demo (1981)

Finished Studio Version (1982)

“Beat It” Home Demo (1981)

Finished Studio Version (1982)

I think the real question we have to ask is why such an extraordinarily gifted composer, singer and dancer is held to this unfair standard that he is somehow a “lesser” talent because we didn’t see him play an instrument onstage? Much of it has to do with what has been a cultural shift in entertainment priorities, with roots that stretch back to the counter-cultural and “folkie” era when the singer/songwriter became the symbol of “cool.” There still persists, especially among the rock culture, a myth of two polarizing extremes of performance-the authentic musician, or the entertainer, with the belief that the latter is somehow less authentic, less pure, and therefore the lesser talent. And yet history has provided us many examples of great singers and great performers who never played instruments onstage-Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, just to name a few. Even Elvis Presley was more of a poser, since his guitar was usually just for show (he could strum a few simple chords, so I have read, but not much more-but he was also an underrated choreographer who came up with many of his best dance sequences, including “Jailhouse Rock!”).

Maybe the moral of the story is that we need to stop judging performers by these unfair double standards, and appreciate them for who they are-and what they do best. Who’s to say that one aesthetic of performing is somehow better than another’s? Personal tastes aside, we have to realize that the term “musician” has many standards by which it can be measured-as does the term “genius.”

Prince's "Piano & A Microphone" Tour Was A Brilliant Idea, Allowing The Performer To Showcase His Versatility While Also Allowing A Restful Change Of Pace From His Usually High Octane Performances. Could Michael Have Pulled Off Something Similar?
Prince’s “Piano & A Microphone” Tour Was A Brilliant Idea, Allowing The Performer To Showcase His Versatility While Also Allowing A Restful Change Of Pace From His Usually High Octane Performances. Could Michael Have Pulled Off Something Similar?

However, I have mentioned on this blog before that I do think it would have been interesting, at the very least, to see Michael perform in a much more low key and intimate style, such as what Prince was doing with his “Piano & A Microphone” tour, or even to just take a moment out of his usual high octane performances to sit with a guitar and sing a ballad, as Madonna has done on her Rebel Heart tour. It would have been a really nice change of pace that would have gone a long way toward proving his versatility. Who knows, maybe if he had lived he would have gone that route. It’s not as if he could have kept dancing like a twenty-year-old forever. But it was Michael’s father Joseph who had instilled in him at an early age that he had to be “in constant motion” on the stage at all times, a belief that had been further ingrained by his Motown training and further cemented by the enormous success of his famous dance routines. Even his ballads were usually performed in a state of perpetual motion.

For Michael, Even Ballads Like “Human Nature” Were Always Performed In A State Of Perpetual Motion

Given this enormous pressure, is it any wonder Michael wasn’t going to be the sort of performer who would ever sit quietly onstage at a piano or on a stool playing a guitar? It is sad in a way, because his “This Is It’ concerts needn’t have been a grueling marathon test where a fifty-year-old performer of his caliber had to “prove” that he could still do what he did thirty years ago. Personally, I would have loved the opportunity to see Michael Jackson age gracefully into a singer/songwriter of the stage. I’m sure his performances would have still been electrifying-could you imagine him sitting at a piano and singing “Man In The Mirror” with a full backup choir behind him? I can, and I know it would have been absolutely astounding.

But one thing the evidence clearly shows-it wasn’t that he couldn’t. It was because it was a conscious choice he made-the choice of a true musician who felt he had nothing to prove (but perhaps sadly and ironically, everything to prove).  We may not always agree with those choices-sometimes we may wish he would have done more of this, or less of that; that he might have shown even more of what he was capable of,  but as admirers of his music and art, we must in the end respect the choices he made, as well as respecting him for the artist that he was-not the one we may have sometimes wanted him to be, but for who he was.

A true musician deserves no less.

ETA: As an addendum to this piece, I wanted to add that there are at least two other public occasions where Michael was witnessed playing an instrument (piano). In J. Randy Taraborelli’s biography, it is stated that Michael played piano at his wedding ceremony to Debbie Rowe.

On the insistence of Michael’s mother, Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, he and Debbie married after his divorce from Lisa. Six months’ pregnant and wearing black, she walked towards him at his suite in a Sydney hotel while he sat at the piano playing ‘Here comes the bride’.

Photos from Michael’s wedding to Debbie Rowe. The piano on which he played “The Wedding March” can clearly be seen behind them.

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And here was a personal story recounted on the mjjfancommunity website (unfortunately, the link provided to the story’s original source no longer works):

From the time I was five years old I have been singing in studios all over NYC for commercials, demos and even music albums. My sister, brother and I have sung on albums for Gloria Estefan, Liza Minelli, Maureen McGovern and even soloed on the Canadian Brass Christmas album. One day, my mother got a call from our contractor booking us for a recording at the Hit Factory. We weren’t allowed to know for whom we were singing and we were only allowed one parent per child. Our interest was peaked. We spent the next few days trying to figure out who this mystery recording could be for. We decided to bring three CD covers with us- Frank Sinatra (he was still alive at the time), Madonna and Michael Jackson.

We went to the studio and some guy told us we were going to be singing one word… “Childhood”. He sang it for us once or twice then began recording. All we heard in the cans (headphones) were tracks with no lead vocal. We still couldn’t figure out what or whom this was for. After singing the one word a few times, I saw a man behind the glass in the recording studio step forward out of the darkness with a black hat, a red shirt and a black curl in front of his face. On the talkback we heard, “Can you sing it a little more like this… Childhood” As soon as I heard the voice I grabbed my sister’s hand and spoke without moving my lips “It’s MICHAEL JACKSON!!!!”

I cooly sang “Childhood” about a dozen more times and the engineer thanked us and said we were done. We went back to the green room where our parents were waiting and I grabbed the Bad album cover from my mom and brought it to Michael’s assistant. I asked her if she could please bring it to Michael and have him sign it. The other kids who sang with us began ripping little pieces of paper for him to sign. They were no where near as prepared as my family!!

The assistant said “Let me see what I can do”, and she disappeared for about five minutes. She came back and said, “Can I have all of the kids follow me?” We followed her to a door in the Hit Factory that had a star on it and said “Jackson”. We went into the room and there he was, greeting us at the door with a hand shake and a smile and telling us that it was a pleasure to meet us. Can you imagine? A pleasure to meet us?? His room was filled with some pretty strange things: life-size cut-outs of the Power Rangers, a train set, and a giant globe that rotated. He had pictures of children that he had helped attached to the country they were from.

Michael had many questions for us like if any of us went to camp for the summer. He said that he always asked his parents if he could go to summer camp because it looked like so much fun and of course they told him no!! This was right around the time when the media was questioning whether or not he had married Lisa Marie Presley. I noticed a ring on his hand and I said, “so does that ring mean you are married to Lisa Marie?” He nodded his head yes and said “shhhhhh”. We chatted for a while, he signed our album cover and we went home having what I thought was the greatest day of my life.

A week or two later my mother got another call from our contractor. This time she said Michael wanted to have us back to the studio to record a Christmas song. It was July but when we got to the studio, it was decorated for the holidays. There was snow all over the ground, a tree, Santa who gave us all presents (we each got a Gameboy… tells you how long ago this was!!) and reindeer. Michael came walking right into the studio this time and didn’t hide behind the glass. I guess he felt more comfortable with us this time. He taught us the song himself and stayed with us in the sound booth as we were singing it. After we recorded the song he invited our parents into the studio and had the whole thing catered. We sat around the piano as he played the piano and we all sang Christmas songs. It’s just like Christmas Eve at the Elefante’s (my in-laws)!!!

So on June 25th, when the whole world was in shock of Michael Jackson’s death, these were the memories that all came flooding back for me.