Michael Jackson may have been a thriller in the Eighties, but he was already a star at 11, and a superstar by the time he hit puberty. This list of his Top 10 musical moments from the Seventies, the decade that paved the way for his remarkable ascent to megastardom, shows how Michael Jackson evolved from the new Frankie Lymon to a disco demon, a sensitive torch singer, a dramatic romantic obsessive, and, later, a world healer.
If you ever want to hear the direct connection between Michael's legacy and those of his stylistic forebears, just take a listen to this stunner, a cover of an earlier Smokey and the Miracles song that was, astonishingly, relegated to a b-side behind "I Want You Back." You can see why Berry Gordy wanted to make Michael the next Frankie Lymon, but you can also hear that his stylistic breadth had already surpassed Lymon's: Michael touches upon everything from doo-wop to Jackie Wilson to Sam Cooke in his ten-year-old vocal lead. The entire history of R&B, in other words.
Everyone loves "I Want You Back" and "ABC," and with good reason. But this, the third single in the Corporation's string of Jackson 5 hits and also the third to employ the same formula, actually improves upon the first two -- it's simply more assured, both in the groove and in Michael's delivery. This is the sound of the youngest of the original 5ive taking control of his instrument once and for all. And go back and look at that second verse closely: it's a neat little historical name-dropper worthy of Cole Porter.
It's been well-remarked upon that Michael possessed a vocal maturity far and above his years, the kind that would let him tackle almost any song and deliver it convincingly. But this hit, written by someone more than twice his age, is on another level of existence entirely -- any tween understands loss and longing, but romantic and sexual obsession? Especially for a kid who wasn't dating? Where does such a thing come from?
Yes, it's a love song to a rat. At least, that's what it is in the context of the marketing for the 1972 horror sequel Ben, in which the title character finds a best friend in a murderous rodent. But Michael, displaying a wisdom beyond his years, knows enough to ignore the context and sing it from the heart, an ode from one lonely child also desperately looking for "a place to go." A classic case of arrested development, Michael never really stopped believing that a mouse could be a friend (if it's in the movies, it must be true), but his misplaced affections, if that's what they were, started here.
The Jacksons had first attempted funk all the way back on their second album, 1970's ABC, where they actually did a decent job covering George Clinton's "I'll Bet You." But this more modern take on the genre, which almost crosses into blaxploitation territory, is the first to let Michael really develop the blues voice that would come to serve him so well whenever he needed to get really serious. Not much of a song, especially in the context of the brothers' legacy, but an important step for the future solo star anyway.
The Gamble-Huff "Enjoy Yourself" was the brothers' official introduction to the latter half of the decade, and certainly "Dancing Machine" (the hit that inspired the creation of the Robot dance!) gave them some street cred. But this smash, penned by Michael and Randy themselves, established the template for everything the Moonwalker would do on his next two solo albums: ethereal on top yet urgent as hell on the bottom, the kind of song that suggests and then proves dancing is not just a representation of freedom, but a valid form of it.
The King of Pop's future breathy mid-tempo ballads all have their genesis right here in this self-penned number, which foreshadows everything from "Human Nature" to "The Girl Is Mine" with its inscrutable tale of one "Jack," who apparently thinks he can buy his way to love if he's nice enough. Prostitution? Midlife crisis? Who knows, but it's an odd choice of material for a 21-year-old superstar, for sure. And why would the enigma that was Michael also claim "he cries about you, he cries about me"?
Michael's first big torch ballad, and once again, he invests a tremendous amount of his personal energy into a song he didn't write, not in order to impress us with his sensitivity (which is what a hack would do), but rather to exorcise his own demons of loneliness and regret. What the new solo star could possibly be regretting remains a fascinating sidebar all its own; but that strangled sob at the end, which producer Quincy Jones badly wanted to excise, was all real.
Somewhat clumsily retitled from "Heartbreak Hotel" after threat of a lawsuit by Elvis' estate, this dark, razor-sharp number lays a direct foundation for his Eighties work, dealing as it does with obsession on an almost cinematic level. Written by Michael, it features a lengthy piano intro that segues into a smooth funk broken up by jarring robotic interludes; perhaps more importantly, it features the first appearance of many of his signature vocal tics -- rhythmic hissing, endless ad-libbing, his "adult" baritone, and the famous "hee hee!"
Another very important step for the future King of Pop: he'd done songs about bringing the world together, and songs about entertaining and being entertained, but this was the first time (and, sadly, one of the only times) the music would create a connection between the two, suggesting that his own power to touch others could directly lead to unlocking some better version of them that lingered deep inside. Which sounds ridiculous to the more cynical among us; then again, the worldwide outpouring of grief over his passing suggests that he possessed just that kind of power.