The Curmudgeon: The Best R&B Act of the '80s

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Michael Jackson is back in the news again, thanks to Xscape, a better-than-expected collection of doctored leftover tracks and to his “Pepper’s Ghost” hologram performance at the Billboard Music Awards. This dead man is back, and once again we face the question: What is Jackson’s proper place in the history of Anglo-American pop music?

Is he the equivalent of Elvis Presley or the Beatles—an act who completely transformed popular music by cutting across demographic categories to unify an audience within a sound so innovative that it would be copied for years to come? Or is he the equivalent of The Eagles and the Bee Gees (who join Jackson at the top of the list of best-selling albums)—a gifted artist who crafted skillful, pleasurable singles without altering the course of the culture in any profound way? If we make a list not of the best-selling albums but of the recordings that provide the deepest, most moving experiences, do Jackson’s belong on the list?

I would argue that Jackson can’t be one of the three greatest artists of the rock era, because he wasn’t even the best R&B act of the 1980s, the Thriller decade. He wasn’t even the second-best.

The best R&B act of the ‘80s was Prince, who does deserve consideration as one of the rock era’s greatest artists. From 1979, when Prince released his eponymous second album and Jackson released Off the Wall, till 1991, when Prince released Diamonds and Pearls and Jackson released Dangerous, the two men had such similar careers that it was impossible not to compare them.

Both were small, skinny men with powerful high tenors, long hair and piercing falsettos. Both were terrific dancers and fashion pioneers. Both deliberately blurred their racial identity—Prince by encouraging myths about his parents, Jackson by narrowing his nose and lightening his skin. Both blurred their gender identity by adopting androgynous clothes, hair and gestures.

Beneath all this theatricality, though, both were deeply rooted in African-American culture and both confronted the central challenge of black pop music in the late ‘70s: How do you preserve the contagious rhythmic precision of disco (still going strong in 1979) while making it less mechanical and more human? Both men came up with similar answers: by adding old-school soul vocals, jazz-inflected chord changes and rock-guitar breaks.

It was easy to find precedents for Prince’s and Jackson’s singing in Sly Stone, Eddie Kendricks and Jackie Wilson, but it was hard to find any antecedents for their arrangements. Jackson and Prince used the industrial organization of disco records to make funk beats less messy and more focused. That streamlining created room for different sonic adventures. For example, they were the first hit-makers to get synthesizers to sound like human voices rather than sci-fi movie gimmicks.

If they were so similar, why were Jackson’s records so much more successful commercially, and why were Prince’s so much better artistically? Because Jackson was the more self-disciplined professional, while Prince was the more reckless gambler.

Considering the mess that Jackson made of his personal life, that may sound strange, but by all accounts he was a perfectionist in the studio, and you can hear the results on the tracks. Quincy Jones, the great jazz arranger who became Jackson’s producer, created a dazzling architecture for the singer, who nailed every note in place. As a result, those recordings were crystal clear and could be immediately absorbed by the casual radio listener, who would go out and buy the LPs—and later the CDs.

The greatest virtue of these albums, however, was also their limitation. What you got on first listen was all you were going to get. You might want to repeat that experience many times because it was so pleasurable, but no more discoveries were to be had. Once a Jackson track started moving in a certain direction, there were no detours or tangents; it was full-speed ahead down the straightest road in Nebraska. These were songs devoid of ambiguity, paradox and irony. In other words, devoid of adulthood.

When Jackson made his astonishing debut at age 10 with the single “I Want You Back,” he already sounded like a post-pubescent 16-year-old. Sadly, on his last recordings, whether released before his death in 2009 or, like Xscape, after it, he still sounds like a 16-year-old. He’s still singing about first infatuations and first heartbreaks, fantasies of a perfect world and tirades against a world that doesn’t understand him.

Don’t get me wrong. Being 16 is something that deserves to be explored in pop music, but in Jackson’s songs the subject is more often inhabited than examined. It’s as if he can’t get any perspective on adolescence because he’s still trapped inside it. As enormously gifted as Jackson was, he devoted his career to a very narrow range of emotional experience.

Between 1980 and 1986, when Jackson released one studio album, Thriller, Prince released five, including four of the best albums in rock history: Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain. If I were picking a disc to take to a desert island, I’d choose any of those four over Thriller. Why? Because there’s always something new to discover in them. Who wants to be stuck on a Pacific atoll hearing the obvious buttons of “Billie Jean” being pushed again and again?

Many of Prince’s early songs deal explicitly with sex, not from the perspective of fantasizing 16-year-old but from the viewpoint of an experienced adult. How can you tell? Because Prince can laugh about it. He knows that for all its power to thrill and scar us, sex also has the power to make us ridiculous. “Animals strike curious poses,” he sings on “When Doves Cry,” a song that also speculates on his parents’ sex life.

Prince’s ability to shift from ecstasy to angst to humor, often in the same track, gives his songs a breadth and depth that Jackson’s shallow dazzle can’t match. And the rapture, tragedy and comedy come not so much from Prince’s lyrics as from his astonishing musical invention. No matter how many times you listen, there’s always a new chord change, guitar fill, melodic leap or rhythmic displacement to wonder at.

So if Prince is the top R&B artist of the 1980s, who’s No. 2 if not Jackson? I would argue that it’s Luther Vandross. To my ears, he’s one of the greatest deep-soul singers of all time—in the same class as Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye—even if he’s never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like Jackson and Prince, Vandross also confronted the disco challenge, and like them he got help from the jazz world. His arrangers were Miles Davis’ bassist Marcus Miller and Cannonball Adderley’s nephew, Nat Adderley Jr.

Vandross wanted to know what his favorite female singers—Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross—might sound like if they were transformed into a low tenor booming over tightly controlled disco rhythm tracks and Philly Soul arrangements. It sounded great, even if it confused gender absolutists.

Vandross was not just a once-in-a-generation singer; he was also a gifted arranger, songwriter and producer. He wrote the crucial vocal arrangement that made David Bowie’s “Young Americans” a hit. He wrote and produced estimable projects for Warwick, Franklin and Ross, among others. More than Elvis Costello, Vandross was the true heir of Burt Bacharach’s songwriting mantle, for Vandross embraced Bacharach’s romanticism in a way the stubbornly skeptical Costello never could.

Why does it matter who’s No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3? Because those of us who are more than casual fans of pop music have an obligation to point subsequent generations to the really good stuff. It’s our responsibility to disentangle the music from non-musical factors such as sales figures and celebrity image. We need to encourage younger listeners to look past a tabloid fixture like Jackson and check out Vandross, who was an overweight crooner of adult love songs and nobody’s idea of a hipster. As a result, he wasn’t able to cross over from black radio to pop until late in his career, when all his best music was behind him. But if you listen to any of his albums from the ‘80s, the songs are emotionally, musically richer than those on Jackson’s records.

One could argue that in the long run Jackson’s most enduring legacy will be as a dancer. Like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (all pop singers now better remembered for their dancing), Jackson made his biggest contributions in movement. He perfected the moonwalk, integrated Astaire’s glides and cross steps into the vocabulary of breakdancing and added some key innovations of his own. Like the shape-shifting bounty hunter in the Terminator movies, Jackson seemed able to liquify his body and reassemble it into whatever shape he chose. It was when he stepped back from the mic and started moving on stage that he truly was the thriller.