Friday, June 25, 2010

UPDATED Michael Jackson vs. Prince: Stranger Than Fiction.

As today is the first anniversary of Michael Jackson's passing, it's expected that there's going to be coverage and reflection regarding what his life and death mean to us as individuals and as a culture. There's a fair bit of nostalgia, to be sure, but it's also an opportunity for some critical consideration; for example, though Thriller continues to cast a long shadow, I've heard more Off the Wall and Bad cuts on the radio and in other media than anything.

Perhaps the best thing to come about during today's remembrances turned up on my radar thanks to ?estlove's Twitter feed. Questo posted a link to Vibe magazine's oral history of the rivalry between Michael Jackson and Prince. Read the article here.

Jackson, Prince, and Madonna were all born within a few months of each other in 1958; with the exception of Bruce Springsteen and U2 (who didn't hit their true commercial peak until very late in the decade), they represent the biggest acts of the 1980s. As gigantic as they were at the time, it's interesting to think of them as having any sort of competition between themselves, rather than being occupied with their own universes. There has been plenty of commentary about the relationship between Madonna and Jackson, but he had always seemed to exist outside of any peer group, both during his dominant period and his decline.

The oral history is great- the rivalry between the two seems to have provided at least some of the fuel behind their best work. Each would show up at the other's shows, taking notes and looking for ways to top what they were seeing and hearing. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this article is that it does a great deal to humanize Jackson without passing judgement on him, for good or for ill. If Jackson is the Howard Hughes of the pop world, this rivalry provides another piece of the puzzle as to what spurred him creatively. UPDATE: Vanity Fair has a fantastic account of Jackson circa the "Thriller" video that provides further insight and some great anecdotes from that era.

There's an anecdote about a James Brown show attended by Jackson and Prince, in which Alan Leeds describes an impromptu showdown between the two men:

Prince went to a James Brown gig [in 1983] with Bobby Z, his drummer at the time, Big Chick, who was his security guard, and I think Jill Jones, who was one of his protégés. By now, everybody knows what happened at that gig. I don’t think Prince realized that Michael was going to be there. James looked a little puzzled in that video when Michael whispered in his ear, “Hey, bring Prince up.” And of course Prince didn’t really know what to do either. He went to the guitar first but he fumbles with that because it was left-handed. He played a few licks, did some dancing and knocked over a prop by accident. Now I always wondered if Michael intentionally brought Prince up to put him in that position just to say, “Hey, you think you’re on my ass? Well follow this, motherfucker [laughs].” Bobby Z called me and said, “Oh boy…he made an ass of himself tonight.” He said Prince didn’t say a word the whole way to the hotel.

Here's the video of that moment.

There are some other choice nuggets in there, including the nature of "Bad"'s beginnings (it was intended as a duet between Prince and Jackson; Prince walked out on the record, stating that it'd be a hit without him- Chris Rock and Prince confirmed this in a VH1 interview and Quincy Jones provides a little more info on the Bad rerelease) and stories of intense ping-pong matches in '86. Bobby Z, Prince's former drummer, confirmed basketball games between the two at Paisley Park- one has to wonder if Prince offered MJ pancakes afterword.

Chappelle's Show
True Hollywood Stories - Prince
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

Keeping all of this in mind, it's hard to think of a contemporary analog for two brilliant creative forces goading each other on. Had Jackson completed his London performances, there's no doubt that this fire would have kept burning and, with Prince in better form over the past few years than he's seen in a decade (at least), there's at least some possibility that Jackson may yet have reasserted some of his artistic powers beyond the tepid, two-star-at-best Invincible.

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