It’s helpful to define certain music styles by the decade in which they dominated. Elvis‘ rock-n-roll is the music most think of when they think of the 1950s. The Beatles and their pop-rock sound (including how it evolved) basically defined 1960’s music in realtime. The 70s saw rock bands go rockier on the one extreme, and dance music go full disco on the other. That’s more of an anomaly versus other decades. The music that defined the 1980s, however, is best exemplified by Michael Jackson.
Jackson’s style was an infusion of pop, dance, and R&B, with slick writing, an audacious fashion sense, and some killer music videos. Despite releasing only two studio albums in the whole decade, you’d be hard-pressed to name a single artist in the 80s that shook the earth quite like the King of Pop.
MJ’s solo career is best organized into two eras: Before Off the Wall and After Off the Wall. It was the 1979 disco-pop album that signaled the artist was more than just “the talented kid” from the Jackson Five and was instead worthy to be regarded as a bonafide music star. Quincy Jones produced the record and helped Jackson score a number one single and his first solo album to reach the top five in the Billboard charts.
Off the Wall ended up selling twenty million copies, making it one of the best-selling records of all time. The follow-up was hotly anticipated but it would not come for another three years. When it did, it blew its predecessor out of the water. Thriller was released in November 1982 and to date has sold an unprecedented sixty-six million copies, the most of all time. The nine-track album was again produced by Quincy Jones and featured such legendary tracks as Thriller, PYT, Beat it, and Billie Jean. In fact, of the nine songs on the album, seven were released as singles, and all seven reached the top-ten, a feat unimaginable. Thriller took Jackson from being “one of the top superstars on the radio” to being the undisputed “King of Pop.”
How do you follow up an album like Thriller? As it turns out, you don’t, at least not for a while. It would be five long years before Jackson finally released his follow-up album. Quincy Jones again produced and it’s here where the story takes a turn.
To this point, Michael had been a young and relatively unproven single’s star, relying on the long-tenured knowhow of Jones almost every step of the way during the recording of Off the Wall and Thriller. With unprecedented success now under his belt, Michael was felt freer to push back with his own ideas and wants. His next album, BAD, was intended—if Michael had his way—to be a huge double (or possibly triple)-album featuring thirty songs. Weeks and months of writing and recording went on, and all the while Quincy kept pushing for Michael to release a single-disc album, featuring only the best of the best. Michael, however, wanted excess, thinking that would be the only way to compete with the ubiquitous Thriller. In the end, it was the producer who won the battle, and Bad shipped as a one-record album, with only ten of the thirty songs originally intended.
BAD was still a monster success, selling over thirty-five million albums. For a time it was the second-best-selling album of all time, second only to Jackson’s own Thriller. Still, the rifts that started to form between Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson became chasms in the wake of BAD’s failure to overtake Thriller. For his next album, Michael decided to be his own producer (with co-producers merely assisting him). The result was Dangerous, which was released in 1991.
Starting with the cover, everything about the album was over-indulgent. As is common on records where the singer acts as their own producer, the album lacks a narrow, focused, restrained theme. Instead, it goes in multiple directions, never landing on one to explore in much depth. Half the album is produced in the New Jack Swing style, and it offered some good songs in that vein, such as Remember the Time, She Drives Me Wild, and In the Closet. Had the whole album zeroed-in on this, with New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley handling those duties solely, an album rivaling BAD might have been the result. Instead, songs wholly unrelated to that genre were added to the mix, such as the rocker Give in to Me, the power ballad Will You Be There, and the pop-dance number Black and White. In fact, on vinyl, the album is spread over two discs, with the New Jack Swing songs on disc one, and the more eclectic songs on disc two. This was almost a great record, instead, it was one-half of one.
But who was going to tell Michael Jackson no? Quincy Jones was the only one capable and he was essentially fired from his duties for that very reason. After selling twenty million, then sixty million, then thirty-five million, there was no one with the clout to tell Michael Jackson how to make music, and his Dangerous songs were radio-friendly enough and were selling enough to make him feel, at least in the initial few months after release, that his decisions had been the right ones.
But then Nirvana happened.
Specifically, the NEVERMIND album happened. The record was the band’s second release, though their first album—1989’s Bleach—failed to sell even fifty-thousand copies in two years. For perspective, in 1983 Michael Jackson was selling fifty-thousand copies of Thriller…every day! Needless to say, the band’s follow-up was a bigger hit. Featuring songs such as Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come as You Are, Lithium, In Bloom, and Something in the Way, the album was one of those instant-classic records that double as a greatest hits package.
With a sound that was raw, stripped-down, and unpolished, the band was as much a polar opposite to the overproduced, indulgent Dangerous as anything in music could be. For example, the average length of a song on the album was only three minutes long. In contrast, Dangerous—which was Michael Jackson’s first to be produced with the CD format in mind—fell into the trap that many late-80s and early 90s albums did, thinking that the extra space afforded by a CD meant songs needed to be longer. Dangerous’ average song length was over five minutes long. The title track alone is seven minutes in length, despite containing only 400 words. For comparison, Beat It also has about 400 words, and it clocks in at only four minutes long. The difference? Dangerous overstays its welcome with too much repetition and time-filler.
Nevermind is made with a garage band mentality and little did they or anyone else know, but that was exactly what music listeners were looking for in the early ’90s. Michael Jackson entered the decade as the King of Pop, but after only a few weeks atop the charts with his latest album, he was jettisoned from the top spot by a trio of nobodies from Aberdeen Washington.
Jackson never recovered. He followed up Dangerous with History, a double album meant to serve not only as a greatest hits record but also a new album of fresh material. Sales were good relatively speaking, but when compared to his previous releases it was a disappointment, to say the least. It would be another six years before his next major release. And while Invincible was arguably his best album since BAD, it sold a staggeringly poor two million copies. Thriller sold that in two weeks. The King of Pop was King no more, and no more albums would be released from Jackson in his lifetime.
If you’re looking for a simple and easy explanation for why he fell off his perch so soon after reaching it, many will try to say it was Jackson’s private life and the myriad of scandals and oddities that ruined him. Nonsense, entertainers have survived far worse and kept selling music along the way. No, if you’re looking for an easy “why,” look no further than this one simple truth: Popular Music is an ever-changing landscape and it’s a market wholly commanded by the often-fickle whims of the consumers.
Sock-hop Rock and Roll made famous by Elvis was soon replaced by the hipper sounds of the Beatles pop-rock. They climbed to the peak of the mountain while Presley toiled away making silly movies. The Beatles vacated their top spot to a hodgepodge of 1970s wannabees before Michael Jackson picked up the vacant crown and reigned supreme in the 80s. After that, tastes changed, and a new generation rose to look for a sound that spoke to them, a sound that felt real. Many of the same ones who bought Dangerous, out of habit, soon took one look (and listen) at Nirvana and said, in one voice, “nevermind.”
And music in the 90s was forever defined.