We were told at Michael Jackson’s memorial service that his favourite song was Smile. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that a man with the undeniable musical ingenuity, the passion and soul that Michael Jackson exuded in every note and every movement, a man so inherently connected by some primal, inner force to the music he devoted his life to creating, held above all other music a song written by Charlie Chaplin, a song whose only really remarkable merit is the admirable and touching sentiment;
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.
But, what can one believe? We are flooded daily with a deluge of conflicting and tenuous information based on the most spurious sources and motives. Was Michael Jackson, one of the most prolific, talented and influential artists of all time, so struck by the sanguine candyfloss of the song’s lyrics, which are admittedly very sweet , that this cheerful little number replaced every other song in history as his favourite? All the soul and technical achievement of musical history, the great artists and number one hits? Are all the dancefloor fillers, poetic lyrics and bone-shaking beats discounted in favour of Smile? It’s possible. However, perhaps this is all part of the myth and image that we are supposed to believe, a sort of Father Christmas figure and we’re not supposed to lift the beard. Does someone want us to see Michael Jackson as a sweet, childlike elf, dancing around Neverland to Smile and being moved by the chipper motivation? Why would it be inconceivable for the public to believe that this musical giant, genius and god, this man who created Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal and so many others, might have had a more mature and frankly musical taste in music.
Watching the footage of Michael performing at the 1995 MTV Awards, for a few seconds I thought the screen was showing stilted frames or somehow distorting the recording. I then realised that I what was seeing was a human being in full reality. Many people have performed what is known as ‘the robot’. Some have done it well, some less so, some have been outstanding, but they have always looked like a person performing as a robot. Watching Michael Jackson feels like watching a machine. It feels more than human, too perfect to be human, and yet somehow merging clean precision with dirty, animal imperfection and magnetic sexuality, polished and raw at the same time. His performance was flawless but the man and powerful humanity glimmered through in the hint of stubble on his chin and the wildness of his hair, something in his hips, something immaculately mechanic and simultaneously deeply human.
I find it so hard to believe that the music he listened to and was influenced by wasn’t something with more substance and soul than Smile. The song is very nice but surely the person who created the songs Michael did would need a stronger fuel to feed his fire. It would be like filling a Land Rover with extremely watered-down petrol, it wouldn’t be strong enough. Surely someone with so much music and beat running in their blood and bones, someone who could dance like Michael did, would need something stronger?
Futile conjecture is indeed futile, but illustrates something greater. Do we accept what we are told too easily? Shouldn’t we question information with discernment and less susceptibility? If we learn to be more sceptical and less easily manipulated by the media and those controlling it then perhaps people higher up and people running the country will have less power over us as a nation.
If we accept manipulation of the consumer in music, we accept it elsewhere, and manipulation can come in the form of substandard. I, for example, forgive Amy Winehouse her shambolic breakdowns on stage because of her proven talent. Artists like Amy Winehouse are genuine and real. They write the songs they sing, about their own experiences, and when they sing those emotions are vivid in their voice. Bands that play their own instruments are able to create something; completeness and a sincerity which is missing from bands that sit on stools and sing somebody else’s lyrics. Why do so many people, young and old, proudly state their musical preference as, for example, Westlife; a group of admittedly good looking young men who wear either identical or co-ordinating outfits (usually suits), mine to their own plastic, inoffensive, anodyne voices singing songs that have been covered by every band to come along for the past thirty (or more) years? The only word to encapsulate bands like this is ‘nice’. They look very nice and have very nice voices and are certainly very nice themselves. I can half-forgive (though reluctantly) the teenage girls who swoon and daydream over the polished, chiselled features and squeaky clean image, but I cannot understand the appeal for grown adults and wonder seriously whether the appeal is musical or simply matinee idol infatuation. Music should not be perfect or polished but raw, sensual and unafraid. For me, music is a human voice which demonstrates the life it’s lived in its imperfection and inimitability, a voice that doesn’t hide pain and the exertion of life. Lyrics that tell their story poetically and beautifully, and rhythm and beat that make you want to move, that speak to the body.
Watching Michael Jackson in 1995 was to watch a demonstration of physical transcendence. The music in that instance served more as a backdrop to the dancing but was in any case outstanding, but that performance was a master at their very best. Billie Jean is one of a small collection of songs which have this elusive power I have been attempting to define. The beat makes the body pulse and urge to move. You can’t help but want to dance. Do people really feel this when they hear a Westlife song? Two songs by Dusty Springfield, for example; Son of Preacher Man and Take Another Little Piece of My Heart are among the songs which urge me to sing, though none of the notes will be right, but they have this power.
Whether it’s live performance or listening to a cd, music has to make you feel, even change. If Westlife is what elicits that experience then who am I to argue?