Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22: Michael Jackson, "Smooth Criminal"

Artist: Michael Jackson
Song: "Smooth Criminal"
Album: Bad
Year: 1988

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Representing the smallest group of musical artists, there are a select handful who have had such long and distinguished careers, that it is impossible to find a proper place to begin or end a discussion of the career in general.  With these elite performers, they went through so many changes, and shaped popular music for so long, that it is difficult to even consider a world in which their music did not exist.  Then of course, there is Michael Jackson.  His name alone demands the utmost respect in all circles of music, as there may not be another performer in the entire history of music who has had as much impact across the entire world of music for such a lengthy time as Michael Jackson.  From his early days in The Jackson 5 to his distinguished, if not legendary solo career, there is a reason that few argue with his title of "The King Of Pop."  Over the course of more than three decades, Michael Jackson was a part of so many great songs, ranging from Motown to disco to hard rock to pop classics, that one can argue more than a dozen recordings as his "best," and thus, one is almost forced to find a song that is not only one of his best, but represents this massive range in style.  It is with this thought in mind, that one can quickly understand the entire allure behind Michael Jackson by hearing his genre-bending 1988 classic, "Smooth Criminal."

While it is a song that is not often cited as his "definitive" tune, on nearly every level, "Smooth Criminal" captures the essence of Michael Jackson, and even more than twenty years after its release, the song remains just as fresh and captivating.  Released as the mind-blowing seventh single from his phenomenal 1988 record, Bad, the song separates itself from the other songs in Jackson's catalog in that it does not feel as if he is "trying" to put on a persona, and "Smooth Criminal" seems to flow effortlessly.  This is even more impressive due to the fact that there is so much going on both musically and emotionally, and the theatrical sense this yields is far beyond that of nearly any other song in the Jackson catalog.  The song itself fuses together elements of funk, soul, disco, electronica, and even hard rock, and the fact that they work together so perfectly is a miracle in itself.  The way in which the bassline seems to almost "stalk" Jackson, following his vocals in both tone and rhythm, is completely unique, and it seems to add a second vocalist to the song.  It is also the manner with which the keyboards bounce that makes "Smooth Criminal" so catchy, and though they were heavily used across every genre by 1988, there is simply no other song that utilizes them in quite this style.  The addition of the inter-locked guitar patterns serves as the ideal finishing touch, and the combined fast-paced, yet nervous feeling that they all created as whole a true musical masterpiece.

However, though the musical arrangement on "Smooth Criminal" is nothing short of perfect, it goes without saying that the song would have gone nowhere without the vocal performance from Michael Jackson.  Having already long established himself as the pinnacle of a pop superstar, in terms of both the vocal range, as well as the attitude and emotion within his singing, there is no parallel to the performance he gives on "Smooth Criminal."  Throughout the song, he works every single part of the vocal scale, from the deep, almost sinister and spoken verses to the soaring chorus sections, the song leaves no doubt whatsoever that even after nearly twenty-five years in the business, his vocal talents were still unrivaled.  Furthermore, the energy that be brings to every word on "Smooth Criminal" is far beyond that of anything else being recoded at the time, and it is on songs like this that one can hear just how much Jackson was able to get "in character" for his songs.  Heightening the uneasy, dark undertones of the music, "Smooth Criminal" helps to drive home the overall image that Jackson was trying to build on Bad, as he seems to show very little sympathy for the protagonist of this song.  Yet even in the face of these rather grim lyrics, and the high-tension mood, one can feel that Jackson is bursting with joy and energy at every word, and it is this element that sets him miles apart from any of his peers.

Though the song may not have the "name appeal" that many of Michael Jackson's other hits carry, when one steps back and looks at his entire catalog, it is difficult to find a song therein that better represents everything he was as an artist.  Bringing together elements of dance, funk, rock, and electronica, "Smooth Criminal" is as perfect a pop song as one can find anywhere, and it much the reason that it remains as powerful and fresh more than twenty years after its first release.  Adding further support to the songs' place within the Jackson catalog, it was "Smooth Criminal" that served as the inspiration for Jackson's legendary Moonwalker film, and the music-video/short film that was created for "Smooth Criminal" also remains one of the most treasured pieces in the long history of "The King Of Pop."  As if all this wasn't enough, though it was following some of the most successful singles of Jackson's career, "Smooth Criminal" easily cracked the top five on the charts in more than ten countries, proving that at the end of the day, though non-traditional, it was as much a pop single as any other in his catalog.  Whether it is the winding keyboard riff, the mesmerizing bassline, or the absolutely irresistible "break down" section of the song, "Smooth Criminal" stands as a complete unique work of art, and this fact alone makes it easy to argue the song as an ideal representation of everything that makes Michael Jackson the absolute icon of music that he remains to this day.

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