Richard Young/Rex USA

Music critic Chuck Arnold recalls the profound influence of the King of Pop

June 26, 2009 09:30 AM

I remember growing up as a little brown boy wanting to be just like Michael Jackson. As the stick of dynamite that sent the Jackson 5 blazing across the charts – and into our hearts – he seemed to have it all, and his music transcended everything a little boy could hope to transcend.

It was clear, even then, that Michael was no mere kid act. Listening to the memorable opening of “Who’s Lovin’ You,” you heard the soulful urgency of a young man far beyond his years. But then, like a flash of those dimples, he could turn that boyish charm around on songs like “Never Can Say Goodbye.” And who else but Michael Jackson could make you so completely believe in the love he felt for a rat on “Ben”?

As great a career as the young Michael had at Motown, though, the best was yet to come. His 1979 solo classic, Off the Wall, paired him with producer Quincy Jones and began to rewrite the book for R&B and pop artists. Hits like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You” have clearly been studied long and hard by today’s stars like Usher, Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo.

Still, it was 1982’s Thriller that would prove to be Jackson’s biggest triumph. And though I would argue that Off the Wall was the better record, there’s no denying the global impact of those brilliant songs, those groundbreaking videos and those killer moves. That moonwalk across the stage during his performance of “Billie Jean” at Motown 25 was like watching man land on the moon.

After Thriller, it was clear Jackson would never be able to top himself. But he continued to make great pop music for years until his life became more of a freak show, and that person I wanted so much to be became difficult to picture. Suddenly, though, that little brown boy is all that I can remember.

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