Timberlake’s “Unforgettable” Moment

The best fiction writers could not invent an enigma as puzzling as Michael Jackson. Was he an abused child who then turned the weapon of that abuse on a hundred or more victims, many of them who were already crippled or damaged in some way? Or was he a victim of mental illness and systematic childhood misery who was trying to express the affection he never received to children who were in desperate need of help? Will we ever know the truth of the allegations against him, or the full extent of the hell he suffered growing up? In what sane world could a man open a private amusement park but be so unhappy that he needed anesthesia simply to sleep?

That would be enough to fascinate anyone interested in the human condition, but then you add his talent, which was simply transcendent. The stuff Mike left on the cutting room floor could punch through today’s insipid pop music like a dust bowl tornado through a squatter’s shack. Witness the above.

One of the more interesting assertions I’ve ever read about Michael Jackson was that he couldn’t sing as an adult:

Quincy Jones produced those records, and Quincy Jones is a very talented man… Quincy warmed up by tinkering with Sinatra, after Sinatra had blown his voice out with poor method and booze and cigarettes and putting his head in ovens over Ava Gardener and couldn’t sing much anymore. Sinatra had gotten all the mileage he could from just sort of talking in a singsong way in a low register, with Nelson Riddle riding herd over the half a gross of string players sawing away behind him. Quincy coaxed one last blast of Brooklyn funk from ol’ Blue Eyes’ leather lungs by putting Count Basie behind him, and perhaps reminding him of what he used to be.

But Quincy’s magnum opus was fixing it so you didn’t notice that the greatest child soul singer, ever, couldn’t sing a lick anymore. Every bit of Quincy’s talents were needed to foist this future circus freak on the public, when the freak had nothing left in the tank but a visually disorienting dance step. And Quincy kept moving the musical cups around so you couldn’t find the little ball under the one marked “He can’t sing.” Because poor old Michael couldn’t sing a lick after his Adams Apple showed up…

But it was over for Michael when his voice changed, and he knew it. And it’s probably what drove him crazy. And if Michael Jackson is anything, it’s crazy. Perhaps you’d go crazy too, if you were given that gift, and then it was taken away from you like that. And it is a gift. Michael’s father Joe couldn’t beat that sound out of Tito or Jermaine, after all, no matter how hard he tried. Michael had it, and out it came.

I cannot disagree with any of this — but I’m also not under the illusion that it mattered at all. No, Mike didn’t grow up to be Peabo Bryson or even Al Jarreau, but his voice was a serviceable and durable instrument for the type of music he (and his producers) chose. More important than that was the fact that he was endlessly creative and thoroughly original and a dedicated servant of his gift. When This Is It came out, I went to the theater expecting crass exploitation and, um, well, there was some of that, but there also a lot of insight into how the man worked and how he created his music. Coaching Orianthi Panagaris on her solo, he tells her “This is your time to shine.” It’s Jackson the professional musician at work: utterly unafraid of competition, insightful enough to know that Orianthi herself had a limited amount of time to shine both in the near term (hey, it’s just a single solo) and the long term (her looks didn’t survive into her twenties, making her “hot rock chick” act a bit of a tough sell in 2014).

The song you hear above was something that didn’t make it onto Thriller, and when you hear the original demo you can see why. It was a song before its time; it needs to float along on top of the deep confection that can be had so easily now with ProTools and a million MIDI-synced synth patches. It would have been the worst song on Thriller with a Motown rhythm section behind it but when it’s “contemporized” it easily kicks the shit out of Nicki and Iggy and the rest of the current poppers.

I saw the above video for the first time while standing in line for the “Maverick” roller coaster at Cedar Point. They have to have televisions in the waiting areas now; to do so otherwise in our screen-addicted age would undoubtedly lead to rioting, fighting, accidental human interactions, lasting love affairs, the dictatorship of the proletariat. I couldn’t really hear the music over the Marshall-amped susurrus of teenaged men trying to impress teenaged girls so I just had to watch the movie.

As a music track, the Timbaland/Timberlake variant of “Love Never Felt So Good” is somewhat inferior to the regular contemporized version that can be found on the Xscape record. But as a video, well, that’s something else. Given the shoulders of a giant on which to stand, JT acquits himself better than decently.

Those of you (us?) who are in the “manosphere” should take a lesson being a so-called “alpha male” here. Observe Mr. Timberlake in his early efforts:

Great track but an utterly pathetic look. JT is not close to the six foot one he claims and he’s physically slight. The shaved-head-and-goatee tough-guy look sits on him like a Mansory bodykit on a Berlinetta Boxer. His attempts to sneer and scowl his way through the video are laughable at best. My five-year-old son would have a fifty-fifty chance of whipping his ass in a fair fight.

Having seen that, go back and watch the top video. The tough-guy look is gone, replaced by a brilliant thirtysomething confidence. He’s engaging and charming and you get the sense he’s enjoying making the video as much as his fans will enjoy watching it. He comes across as a thoroughly professional and thoroughly talented individual. You get the sense that he is channeling Jackson’s mojo even as a part of him stands apart and can’t believe his luck that the track even exists at all.

You can criticize him for being unoriginal but that’s missing the point. The second guy to use a bottleneck on a guitar wasn’t being original but today we recognize it as a style to itself and we can discuss the masters of that style without worrying about originality. Half of the licks on “Appetite For Destruction” are stolen from Chuck Berry — check out “Think About You” if you doubt that — and nobody doubts Slash’s standing as a guitarist and musician.

The world needs, and will continue to need, a durable male pop vocalist. It’s a tradition that goes back before Sinatra and will continue into the future. JT’s take on MJ is so far above what a guy like Michael Buble does to Sinatra’s legacy that the comparison feels silly as I write it. Like Dave Grohl, Justin’s a really nice guy with no apparent self-destructive tendencies. He’s likely to be around a long time. And that’s good. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a true successor to MJ down the road. Here’s hoping that the next great pop talent arrives before the best evocation of the last one calls it quits.

4 Replies to “Timberlake’s “Unforgettable” Moment”

  1. Ronnie Schreiber

    It was all downhill after the Motown 25th show. The kid had talent.

    On one hand Michael had Joe beating him, on the other hand, he was the loved child adopted by the entire Motown community of artists. He learned his first dance steps from Cholly Atkins and how to use his vocal talent from a whole raft of Motown singers.

    The same was true about 10 years earlier with this little blind kid named Stevie. Motown in the golden years, before they moved to LA, was a finishing school for entertainers.

    When I can figure out what demons haunted Michael Bloomfield, maybe I’ll think about MJ’s weirdness.


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