Saturday, October 10, 2009

Michael Jackson and Artistic Freedom at Motown

In the 1970s, former child star and Motown-machine-product Stevie Wonder reached the peak of critical and commercial successes with a series of completely self-created albums: songwriting, production, vocals, in many cases all of the instruments: completely self-created epics nurtured in the hothouse of complete artistic freedom.

And he did it on Motown.

Marvin Gaye, who like Jermaine Jackson had to marry into the family, released a series of epics created entirely as a result of his own vision. On Motown. "Thriller" competed with Lionel Richie's vastly underappreciated "Can't Slow Down", which came out on Motown.

The point is that it certainly was possible to find artistic freedom on Motown. In the case of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, it came after intense struggle. Both of those artists really needed to fight in order to gain that artistic freedom. And I have a sense that Michael Jackson really lacked the fight necessary to stand up to Berry Gordy and challenge his (adimttedly very successful) hit-making machine. (Also note that Epic didn't exactly hand him that freedom on a platter: viz. the first two Gamble/Huff productions.)

But what if he had? What would Michael Jackson be like if he'd stayed on Motown? It's an interesting question, one that I have no idea how to answer. I suspect he might have been more prolific, but I wonder how much he would have challenged himself. It's interesting to remember that he met Quincy Jones while filming 'The Wiz' - which wasn't a Motown production but did co-star his former Motown labelmate Diana Ross, so no Motown means no Quincy Jones. Would Quincy Jones have made an album with Michael Jackson on Motown?

I also wonder how much Michael Jackson would have been able to step outside the R&B envelope on Motown. Yes, Lionel Richie did get a country song out there ("Stuck on You"), but would Motown have looked keenly on bringing in the guitarist from Van Halen, for example?

I also wonder if Motown would have had the marketing clout to carry out Michael Jackson's more ambitious plans. It is true that as late as the 90s, Motown was able to shatter Elvis Presley's forty-year record and put Boyz II Men at the top of Billboard for more weeks than any other song in chart history. So they had commercial savvy.

In the 1990s, Motown slid from being a 'family' to being just any other corporate label (well, it was bought out and became part of the Universal empire). But until then I wonder what the 'family touch' would have done for Michael Jackson's career. It's easy to think of the example of Berry Gordy's son Rockwell, a kid Michael Jackson had known most of his whole life, who decided he wanted to be a musician and came up with the oh-so-80s "Somebody's Watching Me", and how readily Michael Jackson was willing to help out an old friend by singing the chorus of (and absolutely taking possession of) his song. Would that have kept happening throughout the 80s, and would his own releases be filled with stable-mate collaborations?

Who knows?

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