#MJ50 Michael Jackson’s Decades Challenge

Chris Lacy
9 min readOct 4, 2021

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This week in music history: Motown Records released Michael Jackson’s first solo single “Got to Be There” in 1971. Five decades later, we saw a child prodigy become the biggest entertainer the world has ever seen. To celebrate his legacy, I chose one song per decade for us to revisit.

THE 1970s: THE FORCE AWAKENS

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

Off the Wall (1979)

The Force is an energy field that binds the galaxy together. Its power gives those sensitive to it extraordinary abilities. Many people have spent years trying to understand it. Michael Jackson was one of the few who did.

Strapped to a synth-bass riff and maracas, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” soars into the sky at lightspeed. His signature “Oooooh!” sends you on a musical comet with a sparkling trail of colors behind it. Beneath the interstellar groove is the disco pulse of Studio 54. The famous Manhattan nightclub housed swirling mirror balls and clinking champagne glasses. It was an escape for misfits dancing under party lights, covered in melting makeup and glitter. Michael recalibrated those elements and electrified them with the power of his voice:

Lovely is the feelin’ now

Fever, temperature’s risin’ now

Power (ah power) is the force, the vow

That makes it happen

It asks no questions why (ooh)

Get closer (closer now) to my body now

Just love me ‘til you don’t know how (ooh)

As gifted as MJ was, he needed an Obi-Wan Kenobi to his Luke Skywalker. Enter Quincy Jones, a musical maestro who could bend any genre he wanted with the tightness of a Force choke. On the one hand, Q silenced the skeptics who believed he was “too jazzy” to make a №1 pop record. On the other, he also helped his young Padawan send an undeniable message of his own: The little boy who charmed millions with the Jackson 5 had grown up and become a man.

Even now, there’s still something different about “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” It has something other dance classics don’t. Call it what you will: competitive fire, magical energy, or a divine spirit. Whatever it is, the force is strong with this one.

THE 1980s: ON TOP OF THE WORLD

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”

Thriller (1982)

Following Off the Wall’s enormous success, one would think Michael Jackson was on the top of the world — he wasn’t. The young phenom went home with disappointment and only one Grammy in 1980. “I said to myself, ‘Wait until next time,’” he remembered. “They won’t be able to ignore the next album.”

Jackson wrote “Startin’ Somethin’” around Off the Wall, but he wasn’t ready to share it yet. “Sometimes, I have a song I’ve written that I really like, and I just can’t bring myself to present it,” he admitted. “Because I’m afraid they won’t like them, and that’s a painful experience.”

“Come on, where is it?” Q nudged. “I know you got it.” When MJ played his demo, the 49-year-old mentor went crazy! “I’d known Michael since he was 12 years old, but it was like seeing and hearing him for the first time,” Jones beamed. “I was electrified, and so was everyone else involved in the project.”

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” amplifies its three-ring circus funk to the highest wattage. Shimmering synths, chattering drums, and bright trumpets zip with glee. Michael Jackson, a master showman, sings as if he’s a big-top musical hybrid of P.T. Barnum and James Brown:

It’s too high to get over (yeah, yeah)

Too low to get under (yeah, yeah)

You’re stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)

And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)

While he wanted everyone to buy his records, MJ’s level of fame provoked a crippling fear of the outside world:

You’re a vegetable, you’re a vegetable

Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable

You’re just a buffet, you’re a vegetable

They eat off of you, you’re a vegetable

(Who exactly were “they?” The media? The public? The music business? His family? Or all the above? We may never know.)

Yet Michael turned his fears into music that made the whole world dance with him. At the 4:26 mark, he whoops as if he’s a Baptist minister preaching to a small, sweat-soaked congregation:

Lift your head up high

And scream out to the world

I know I am someone

And let the truth unfurl

No one can hurt you now

Because you know what’s true

Yes, I believe in me

So you believe in you

Help me sing it

The African chant “Ma-ma-se, ma-ma-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa” sends the song soaring to the heavens. Adapted from Manu Dibango’s 1972 song “Soul Makossa,” it tells listeners to dance. (It was a command their bodies followed, even if they didn’t speak Duala.)

Hitting rock bottom teaches you lessons that mountaintops never could. As disappointing as the Grammy letdown was, the King of Pop’s arrival was poetic justice:

  • Seven of Thriller’s nine songs became Top 10 Billboard hits. (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” reached №5 in July 1983.)
  • In February 1984, Guinness named Thriller the best-selling album ever. (A title it still holds.)
  • Three weeks later, Michael Jackson clutched a record-setting eight Grammys against his chest. (He was 25 years old.)

THE 1990s: TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

“Stranger in Moscow”

HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book I (1995)

In the early 1990s, the King of Pop had good reason to smile. Dangerous was his fastest-selling album since Thriller. His Super Bowl XXVII Halftime Show was the gold standard of sports entertainment. But, in the summer of 1993, disaster would soon strike.

Rumors of child abuse hit the media, and the witch hunt began. Police raided Neverland Ranch and forced the singer to do a full-body search. He proclaimed his innocence on live TV and, later, said his advisors told him to settle out of court. But, in the court of public opinion, this move made him look guilty and opened the door to more allegations. Angry and humiliated, Jackson responded the best way he knew how: through his music.

Inspiration for “Stranger in Moscow” came during a stop in Russia on his Dangerous World Tour. It happened a few weeks after the allegations went public. “It fell into my lap,” Michael shared. “Because that’s how I was feeling at the time. Just alone in my hotel, and it was raining, and I just started writing it.” (Keyboardist Brad Buxer said MJ took full credit for his song since he wasn’t aware of publishing rights.)

When Jackson finished touring, the first song he wanted to work on was “Moscow.” Buxer sensed that he would, given the emotional toll of the accusations. He asked Toto members David Paich, Steve Porcaro, and Steve Lukather to meet him at The Hit Factory. They were instrumental in making “Human Nature” and rivaled what they did on Thriller. Hypnotic guitars, warm bass tones, and a mist of synth strings twirl around a loop of MJ’s beatboxing. (John Barnes would put the finishing touches on the rhythm and vocal arrangements.)

“Just like with poetry, if you have too many lines or one extra stanza, it can ruin the whole thing,” Buxer noted. “Music is the same thing. It’s minimalism. I learned that from Stevie Wonder. Use as few notes as possible to find as much psychological information as you can.” People didn’t need to be a celebrity, musician, or scholar to connect with the song’s crippling loneliness:

I was wandering in the rain (Mask of life, feeling insane)

Swift and sudden fall from grace (Sunny days seem far away)

Kremlin’s shadow belittling me (Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be)

On and on, it came (Wish the rain would just let me be)

The final two minutes is one of the most piercing moments in his entire catalog. “Lord have mercy,” he sings as if he’s begging the heavens to numb his pain. Then, he slumps to his knees with rain falling in drenching sheets, roaring:

We’re talking danger

We’re talking danger, baby

Like a stranger in Moscow

I’m living lonely

I’m living lonely, baby

Stranger in Moscow

This dark chapter of Michael’s life did enormous damage to his popularity and self-esteem. The single clawed its way to №91 on the U.S. Pop chart instead of the customary №1. He was already somebody who, in his own words, was “different.” Now, he was an alleged child abuser, although credible evidence suggested otherwise. On an album that opens with a “Scream” and ends with a “Smile,” “Stranger in Moscow” is a monument to his resilience.

THE 2000s: BACK IN THE GROOVE

“Butterflies”

Invincible (2001)

Almost 30 years had passed since Michael Jackson’s solo debut. And, in 1999, TV Guide asked him who he believed his audience was now. “I don’t know,” the singer answered. “I just try to write wonderful music, and if they love it, they love it. I don’t think about any demographic.”

Could the King of Pop hang with NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Usher, or Destiny’s Child? The new millennium set the stage for MJ’s return, one that proved his desire to create and compete never faded. The song? A fluttering ballad, opening with the warm crackle of vinyl, “Butterflies.”

The song came from a British R&B duo, Floetry, composed of Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart. Their friend, Andre Harris from A Touch of Jazz, knew Jackson’s manager, John McClain. When the pop star heard their work, he flew them to New York City to record “Butterflies” for his Invincible album.

Before he could convince the pop world he had returned, he had to show others close to him that he was ready. “We originally demoed it with [Marsha] singing,” assistant engineer Vidal Davis said. “So it was hard for him to hit those notes. We did tons and tons of takes.” Jackson did scales for two hours with his vocal coach Seth Riggs by phone. Next, he danced to the song’s backing track to psych himself up before re-recording the notes he missed. Then, near the 1:26 mark, Michael found his groove:

All I got to say is that I must be dreaming, can’t be real

You’re not here with me; still, I can feel you near to me, baby

I caress you, let you taste us, just so blissful, listen

I would give you anything, baby, just make my dreams come true

Oh, baby, you give me butterflies

The “Y’all thought I fell off” swagger in his step: back.

The megawatt smile in his voice: back.

The brilliant performer from Gary, Indiana: back.

“What’s crazy is we created something that we were all passionately in love with,” Ambrosius raved. “And the fact that we came together in that studio to make it so, the evidence is in when you push play on that record. It speaks for itself. There’s nothing wrong with that song.”

By early 2002, it was clear Invincible wouldn’t be the comeback story that fans imagined. Due to Sony’s lack of promotion, only one single (“You Rock My World”) got an official release instead of the planned six. Still, “Butterflies” soared to №14 on the U.S. Pop chart and №2 on the U.S. R&B chart by popular demand. Those who’d been there from the start never doubted him. For those who counted him out, the message was clear. Michael Jackson wasn’t going to leave his pop crown behind without a fight.

THE 2010s: A COMPLICATED LEGACY

“Xscape”

Xscape (2014)

Remixing unfinished work is a catch-22. Remain too faithful to the source material, and you risk offering nothing new to the fans. Stray too far away from it, and you risk losing sight of the artist’s original vision.

After the botched Michael album, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins approached Xscape with caution. “When [“L.A.” Reid] called me to be part of the project, at first, I was a little hesitant,” he explained. “It wasn’t that I didn’t trust ‘L.A.’ It’s just that I worked with Michael before. And I knew what his expectations were, what his standards were.”

Eager for redemption, Jackson’s estate gave Reid access to the vault. “I made a rule for myself: I’m only interested in songs that Michael sang from top to bottom multiple times. Because then I would know that he loved the song.” As Xscape took shape, “Darkchild” offered to revive an Invincible-era outtake. “When I went in there, I went with the mindset of ‘What would Michael want me to do right now?’” the producer expressed. “There were things I would do musically, and it was almost like I could hear his voice saying, ‘No, no, no, no, try this!’”

Bursting from a straitjacket, “Xscape” runs wild with extended sleeves and flying buckles. It shakes the walls of Jackson’s prison-like fame with quaking 808 bass and vibrant horns. You can almost imagine the King of Pop bobbing his head and scrunching up his face in delight. Around the 1:40 mark, he lashes out after years of throwing himself against the padded walls of his psyche:

Why is it I can’t do whatever I want to

When it’s my personal life, and I don’t live for you

So don’t you try to tell me what is right for me

You be concerned about you; I can do what I want to

Many fans debate whether Jackson’s demos should see the light of day without his final blessing. Yet, Jerkins revealed: “Michael was very clear in telling me that one day [‘Xscape’] has to come out. It was one of his favorite songs.” How do you keep the late entertainer’s legacy alive? Short answer: Hand the reins over to people who show equal respect and restraint to his work.

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Chris Lacy

I aim to write stories that move you today and stay with you forever.