By Tola Ositelu
In the run-up to the World Cup the BBC recently broadcast ‘Welcome to Rio’, a documentary that celebrates the resilience and ingenuity of the unsung heroes/heroines who people the city’s favelas. The three part series chronicles the everyday challenges and triumphs of various inhabitants one of whom is Diogo Da Cunha-aka Breguete- a young man who dreams of leaving the slums through becoming a champion of the current dance craze, Passinho. At the final of one prestigious contest, he interlaces his frantic breakdance-style moves with crotch grabs, pelvic thrusts and throwing other instantly-recognisable shapes; all whilst donning a trilby hat. It is an obvious, unspoken reference to one of his musical idols.
Da Cunha was only 22 when ‘Welcome to Rio’ was filmed last year. That means he was born in the early 90s; a time when Michael Jackson still enjoyed immense success as an international icon like none other before or since. However he was, arguably, past his creative peak. Many of us privileged enough to have experienced a 1980s childhood will have fond memories of a personal soundtrack dominated by Jackson’s best tunes; days unencumbered by allegations of child abuse. Not so for the generation after. For the vast majority of the years MJ was alive during Breguete’s lifetime, his name would have been mired in scandal and his music not nearly as much a focal point as his private life. Yet evidently Jackson’s artistic influence transcended all the calumny as far as this young dance hopeful was concerned.
My sister, who lives and works in Japan, has several MJ-related anecdotes involving her youngest students, some of whom were only born around the time, or after, he passed away. She tells of how they eagerly commit the ‘Thriller’ or ‘Bad’ routines to memory, as if to do so is a childhood rite of passage. Japanese tots make reference to him whenever dance is mentioned at all.
This month marks five years exactly since Michael Joseph Jackson died from an accidental overdose. Like it or not, what you were doing and where you were the day he died will be considered one of this century’s historical benchmarks alongside 11 September 2001, 07/07, the Arab Spring or when Obama became US president. By the time he died, creatively Michael wasn’t exactly at his prime. But you wouldn’t know it from how quickly tickets sold out for his ‘This Is It’ residency at the O2 Centre or the way, half a decade later, we still clearly mourn his loss. It’s as if some collective guilt for indulging in all the schadenfreude that surrounded him whilst he was still with us, mixed with a growing nostalgia for what he gave the world at his best, further fuels our appreciation. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
May 2014 saw the release of ‘Xscape’-a catalogue of previously unreleased music from the King of Pop given the once over by R&B production royalty such as Timbaland, Stargate and Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins. It raced to the top of album charts all over the globe. The lead single was the Off The Wall-era ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ (a close friend commented that the video features too many children to be in good taste, if you get my drift). The track features a posthumous duet with Justin Timberlake, who has assumed his idol’s mantle perhaps more proudly than any other contemporary artist.
But he’s not alone. Singer Bruno Mars has apparently re-fashioned himself as a Filipino version of 1970’s Michael. He sports a carefully coiffed Afro, looks more tanned and poses in promotional pictures for his latest album in a manner suspiciously similar to that of Michael on the cover of ‘Off the Wall’. The album title itself ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ is, to my mind anyway, an obvious attempt to capture a certain OTW zaniness. Pharrell Williams seems to have channelled a lot of MJ recently too. Apart from his penchant for wide-brimmed hats, there’s a distinct Jackson essence (circa Motown 25 Anniversary) to the unofficial video for Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. Observe the sparkling ‘Billie Jean’ jacket and the way Williams jerks his upper body to the beat, tucking his left hand rakishly into his trouser pocket. The song itself could well be homage to Jackson’s disco days.
The list goes on. Here in London the popularity of the ‘Thriller Live’ musical shows no signs of abating with both national and international tours in the offing. Acrobat-troupe extraordinaire Cirque de Soleil have not one, but two shows dedicated to the Pop King; ‘The Immortal’ now on world tour and the soon to be opened Las Vegas spectacle ‘The One’.
Of course it would be naive to overlook the fact that when it comes to an artist’s brand, death is an especially effective marketing tool. Jackson’s estate is said to be worth more now than when he was alive. From owing half a billion dollars at the time of his death, Michael’s books are resolutely back in the black. According to Forbes magazine he generates more income than any other deceased legend ahead of Elvis, John Lennon, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe. Heck, last year he made more money than the highest-earning living entertainers. Books are still being written about the secret of his financial success. Yet it would be cynical to claim that interest in Jackson’s legacy is purely monetary. For most of us, it’s much more personal than that.
MJ tribute acts seem to be busier than ever. Comedians do cheeky sketches in his honour. I hear traces of his unmistakeable vocal dynamics in younger male pop/R&B singers. Neyo’s career for instance was practically built on writing songs that sound like MJ cast-offs.
Yet another 1980s icon, Sade, further immortalised her superstar peer with an affectionate reference to him in the superb ‘Skin’, on the 2010 comeback album ‘Soldier of Love’. I hear pre-pubescent kids at my church singing ‘Man in The Mirror’; a hit released almost two decades before they were even conceived. The ripples of Michael’s singular impact on the entertainment world will resonate for generations to come.
Why fight it? Five years on, his loss is felt like it was fresh. We still miss Mike. We probably always will.