I don't think it's too early for this...
Take a listen to this (pops). It's the first thirty seconds of the Jackson Five's first single for Motown, "I Want You Back." Number One for a week in January, 1970. (Preceded in that spot by -- oy! -- "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," succeeded by The Shocking Blue's "Venus." There were giants in the earth in those days.)
It's particularly instructive to stop the clip after ten seconds, after twenty seconds, and at the end, and ask yourself, "What has happened so far?" The answer will be that after ten seconds, you've had one iteration of the verse's main instrumental motif. You've had that fabulously exciting piano crash that kicks the whole thing off, you've had nine -- count 'em nine! -- chord changes. The rhythmic pattern is immediately established: the rhythm guitar sets up its chang-ka-chang syncopation against which the bass, keyboard and lead guitar establish the chordal pattern directly on top of the beat. What an amazingly effective musical idea: Make the clanging, monotonal guitar the central syncopative device, while the rest of the band plays a slightly plodding series of notes that declare the harmonic pattern. Not a single drum has yet been heard -- only one cymbal crash -- but we're already up and dancing to this marvelously infectious and complex polyrhythm.
Between seconds 10 and 20, we get our second iteration of the motif, this time with congas, orchestra, and a third guitar adding yet more complexity to the rhythm. This sets up the beautiful explosion between seconds 20 and 30, in which the drums finally kick in, and the bass slides up an octave and plays for the first time the magnificent descending figure with which it will bolster the chorus throughout the song. (That's what your professor would call your contrapuntal motion; and like the man said, "Live it, or live with it.") Little Michael does his nearly wordless vocalization ("a-lemme-tell-ya-now" being the main concept being put forward) -- sounding improvised, but, I'm sure, the product of whole lot of thought on somebody's part. By now, if we aren't completely hooked, we never will be -- we're probably back with the "Raindrops Keep Falling" crowd.
Now, Michael Jackson, all of ten years old during its recording, had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of this stunningly terse exposition. That credit goes to The Corporation -- Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell -- and to the various musicians who played on it, most notably the stunning bassist Wilton Felder. Michael's task going in was to sing the living shit out of the lyric -- and by the end, no one will cavil when I assert that there remains neither jot nor tittle of living shit in that lyric. Talented kid, no question.
So that's that -- now take a gander at this. The first thirty seconds of "Billie Jean."
Let's try that every-ten-seconds exercise again.
0:00 - 0:10: Nothing. A drum machine and a farting synth. No motion whatsoever.
0:10 - 0:20: The same fucking nothing.
0:20 - 0:30: The nothing continues, with the addition of a four-note synth figure. A human being enters 29 seconds in, when Michael hiccups and begins the verse. The first chord change comes in at 0:37.
This shit went platinum.
Now, a lot happened between 1970's "I Want You Back" and 1983's "Billie Jean." Not only in popular musical tastes, but also in technology. MIDI. Click tracks. Drum machines. And of course, the all-important, sine qua non technology: video. YouTube has disabled embedding the Billie Jean video, but you can still watch it here. It's something of a revelation. Ah, we think. That's where those thirty seconds went. That's why the song's so spare, why so much of nothing is going on in the opening strains: The music's become subservient to the video.
Music for the eyes. Music to stare at.
The whole purpose of that utterly wonderful opening of "I Want You Back" is to reach out and grab you. It's producers knew perfectly well how their product would for the most part be consumed -- by people with better stuff to do, who have the radio on in the background as they go about their daily business. If your first couple of seconds don't contain something that makes them go woah! you may well be screwed. They're back to their work, tuning your product out. Think of how many iconic pop artifacts of the AM radio era start with a clang like that -- "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," the Byrds' chiming twelve-string confections, "A Hard Day's Night."
When you are watching TV, that's what you're doing. Watching. Attending. It matters very little that there's fuck-all going on in the first thirty seconds of the record, as long as the material onscreen tickles the audience's Entertainment Gland.
That's what we lost sight of in the Eighties -- the imperative to make interesting records that stand absolutely on their own, independent of any other medium. To serve your audience. To, yes, pander.
It's when I checked out, too -- probably not at all coincidentally -- and started investigating musics of the past: bluegrass, old country, jazz, that stuff. Haven't looked back.
Michael Jackson's death is sad in many senses of the word, but as he was the first true MTV phenomenon, I blame him in a real sense for killing my love of pop music, my interest in following what's new. That I won't forgive.
Update: Jesus Horatio Christ
Michael Jackson will live on as a 'plastinated' creature preserved by German doctor Gunther von Hagens.
Von Hagens has caused controversy with everyone from the Pope to the chief rabbi in Israel with his practice of embalming corpses with preserving polyurethane.
Yesterday, he declared: 'An agreement is in place to plastinate the King of Pop.'