Rock With You by Michael Jackson
I recently listened to one of my first favorite tunes.
Imagine a young kid with curly brown hair jumping around and dancing poorly in his family’s living room, likely in not much more than a t-shirt and tight whiteys. That was my faithful childhood uniform around my house as a kid. It did give me pause to describe what I wore as a youth while listening to, um, you know, Michael Jackson, but it wasn’t like I was at the Neverland Ranch. And thus begins the problematic nature of even talking about Michael Jackson’s music. The other stuff - albeit important other stuff - just gets in the way. So let’s skip it for now and talk about music.
I’m sure I was one of millions of kids who had little understanding of how or why the music of Michael Jackson made me feel that way. But it just did. Millions of dancing kids and millions more screaming girls around the world couldn’t all be wrong. I could name any number of Michael Jackson’s songs, but I always think of “Rock With You.” Funny enough, we had the Jacksons’ Live album from their 1981 tour, so in my mind, that's the ultimate version of this classic track.
My dad, growing up in East Cleveland, had his own Motown experience. He would often share stories of his adventures in small clubs and bars, where Motown legends like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Junior Walker and the All-Stars would grace the stage. Those were magical moments for him, witnessing these incredible acts before they reached massive fame. It wasn't until I had my own encounters with rock bands later on that I truly appreciated the significance of those experiences.
Of course, Michael Jackson's legacy has become increasingly complicated over time due to the controversies surrounding his involvement with children. It's sad, but in a way, it's become somewhat easier to reconcile with his music now that he's passed away.
I'll never forget the day he left us. My wife and I were checking out of a hotel in Columbus when the news flashed across the TV screen. It was a mix of excitement and sadness. Michael Jackson had ascended to fame where he no longer seemed human to me. He became an icon, representing so many things, including the troubling allegations against him regarding inappropriate relationships with children.
As time has passed, it's become simpler to condemn the alleged actions while still marveling at his music. No matter what happened in his life, I can't erase those moments of dancing with my dad or the sheer joy of listening to his music in our house.
The ongoing debate of separating artists from their art is a topic that comes up frequently. We all have those songs that make us feel alive, regardless of the person behind them or the messages in their lyrics. It's an unfair expectation to demand that we fully endorse every aspect of an artist's life or their statements within their art.
A recent experience watching Pedro the Lion perform their albums "Control" and "It's Hard to Find a Friend" highlighted the complex relationship between artist and work. The band's frontman David Bazan spoke very little during the show, but his words resonated deeply. He reflected on the strangeness of singing words that he had outlived and found solace in connecting with his 20-something self who wrote those songs. He asked for understanding and forgiveness for the person he used to be, someone who didn't possess the knowledge he has now. It was a beautiful way to honor the music two decades later.
I know it might seem odd to bring up Michael Jackson and Pedro the Lion in the same breath, but here we are. It just goes to show the diverse nature of the conversations that arise in music.
I decided to talk about “Rock With You,” but it very easily could have been me as a 9-year-old with the cassingle of “Man in the Mirror.”
Ah, cassette singles. Remember those? There was something delightful about their distinct smell when you cracked open the packaging. And the individual cardboard sleeves that snugly embraced the cassette added a touch of charm. As a little kid, they felt like a bargain, a mini-musical treasure that I could afford. I didn’t understand volume pricing at that age. On top of all that, for an obsessive music fan in the making, I could play that song, hit rewind and in a matter of a dozen seconds I’d be listening to that five-minute masterpiece again.
That song didn’t make me want to dance, but it just made my soul ache. That’s a feeling that I’ve been chasing in music every day of my life since. That’s what I love most about music. For me it’s a religious ache that some of you get in church. I get it on records and in rock clubs. Between the gorgeous melodies, harmonies, and the powerful video on MTV, it was about all I could take as a young kid. I remember sitting at my childhood desk with my little boombox two-cassette stereo playing my tapes over and over again.
When I think about that song, my mind races. First of all, when you listen to it, I dare you to not think “Wow, I remember this being a slower song than this.” Man in the Mirror is 100 beats per minute. I looked it up and some other 100 BPM songs are Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” one of my favorites, “Hips Don’t Lie,” and Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body.” I think of “Man in the Mirror” as a ballad, but it’s shockingly up-tempo in all reality. It’s five minutes long, but in my mind it should be slower. That would make it a six-minute plus song though.
On top of that, it had a big key change and a big chorus backing him up. I’ll be honest, I miss the key change. It became cliche after a certain point in time, but there's no denying it’s effectiveness.
“Man in the Mirror” is like a one-man epic. It was like he wanted another “We Are the World” but he didn’t want to share the spotlight with a hundred other stars. Unlike that one that Jackson co-wrote with another Lyndall household favorite, Lionel Richie, “Man in the Mirror” was written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett. You’ll remember Ballard’s name from when I wrote about Alanis and Jagged Little Pill. That’s a pretty unbelievable resume for a songwriter, huh?
And maybe that’s the magic of talking about Michael Jackson in a post-death scenario. I don’t mean to dance on his grave or speak ill of the dead, but he can’t do any more damage. I remember reading somewhere shortly after his passing how poor his estate was with him alive due to his outlandish spending and lifestyle. The person in the know talked about how much more valuable the estate was with him not there to spend all the profits.
From an artistic standpoint, it kind of feels the same way. Now, he can safely be viewed as a non-human icon who was undeniably talented as a singer, songwriter, and entertainer.