I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve always taken Michael Jackson’s optimism and musical happiness for granted. Black folks especially, at least those in my circle, praise his artful force for party R&B songs like “Shake Your Body” and “Remember the Time”. Not much has been said, however, about Mike’s collection of sorrow songs that increase with every album release. He was familiar with the Blues tradition—whereas sorrow usually came in the form of relationship problems—yet post Off the Wall, we see the King of Pop really examine his own unhappiness. The music, growing into its raspy tone and its realistic perspective about the world, stems from Michael Jackson’s silence in his youth.
At an early age, Michael was forced to channel his raw talent into making feel good music; this was Joe Jackson’s vision which proved successful. Unfortunately, it deprived young Michael of available media for the uninhibited expression of dismay, so predominant in children’s lives. Day and night rehearsals and shows placed an emotional demand on young Mike; it was required that he suppress his troubled feelings for the culture of Jackson 5. Notwithstanding the emotional labor, we can be sure that it continued, abnormally, for years.
Hence, adulthood means a lot for Michael and the new framing of his music. Starting a little bit before Off the Wall, Mike broke away from Joe Jackson’s vision—that accurately appeased the 70’s—and took off with his own direction. Specifically Michael Jackson’s persona two albums later, in Bad, is drastically different from any project prior to that. We witnessed Jackson taking advantage of the emerging independence in musical direction. Bad had the paramount raspy sound cultivated by daring to cross-over into Rock. Along with the change in tone, his music becomes more honest and vulnerable.
It was the natural progression of his growth as an artist (thank you Sarah Giskin), which simultaneously manifested the overdue arrival of Jackson’s rage, or purging of those bad emotions. “Dirty Diana” comes to mind: Mike doesn’t give an innocent experience of heartbreak anymore; instead, his character is liable to cheating. There’s a mature recognition that evil will be done to me and I will take control of it: “I’ve been here times before, but I was too blind to see/that you seduce every man, this time you won’t seduce me”.
Unlike countless children, little Mike didn’t have the moment to cry everything out, since what would be his outlet was his professional platform. As the last tear drops—when it comes to others—the lesson unfolds and it informs the individual of social relations. Again, early pop-R&B music by the Jackson 5 would not permit Jackson to confront—with therapeutically tears—what would become a site of trauma, or internal injury.