Jheri Curl June Special: Michael Jackson

It’s only fitting, as we spend the last full week of Jheri Curl June discussing the twilight years of the genre, that we pay tribute to the man whose passing five years ago today helped spark a revived interest in the music he popularized: Michael Jackson. Though Jackson didn’t play as formative a role in the invention of jheri curl music as his onetime biggest rival, Prince, he damn sure might have perfected it with his string of early-to-mid-’80s crossover hits, both with and without his brothers in the Jacksons. He certainly sported a jheri curl for longer than any of the other artists we’ve discussed so far; posthumously, in fact, if we count his holographic performance at this year’s Billboard Music Awards, making him possibly the first person in history to be outlived by his jheri curl.

So today, let’s celebrate the life and legacy of jheri curl music’s second most important figure. Just like with Prince, we’ll take a tour through the history of Jackson’s jheri curl music and fashion, and discuss his significance to the genre. Michael may be moonwalking with the angels now, but fortunately for us, his music still lives on.

The Jacksons in 1978, still pre-jheri curl; photo stolen from Michael Jackson Sempre Vivo!

Like Prince, Michael Jackson has a bit of a jheri curl pre-history, dating back to the Jacksons’ 1978 album Destiny. The Jacksons were by that time over ten-year veterans of the music industry, which made their entry into jheri curl music even less dramatic than that of the young upstart from Minneapolis. Most of Destiny–and, indeed, the next few albums from Michael and his brothers–was straightforward, if expertly crafted disco music. Two songs, however, showed stirrings of the emergent jheri curl style. R&B hit “Blame It on the Boogie” was dance-oriented but with a notably slower pace than most disco; throw some synths into the mix, and it would make a solid jheri curl track. And “Things I Do for You” gets even closer, with just a slightly more organic pop-funk sound than classic JCM.

MJ’s hair went jheri curl before his music; © MJJ Productions

Indeed, Jackson was slower to adopt jheri curl music than he was to wear an actual jheri curl hairstyle. You can see the beginnings of his jheri curl as early as the video for Rock with You,” the second single from his 1979 solo breakthrough Off the Wall, but the song itself is so disco it was written by one of the guys who sang “Boogie Nights“–though to be fair, that keyboard solo would fit right in on a jheri curl track two or three years later. More convincingly proto-jheri curl are the Paul McCartney-penned ballad “Girlfriend,” which adds a white pop touch (and a saxophone solo) that heavily foreshadows the coming decade’s musical trends; and another ballad, “It’s the Falling in Love,” that sounds more 1982 than a lot of R&B songs actually recorded in 1982.

The Jacksons in 1980, still disco but freshly cut and curled; photo stolen from Fanpop

In 1980–the same year Prince went full JCM with Dirty Mind–the Jacksons continued to inch closer to jheri-curl glory with their next group album, Triumph. Singles “Lucky One” and “Walk Right Now” are more disco numbers gingerly dipping their platform-heeled feet in the shallow end of the jheri-curl pool. But then, with closing track “Wondering Who,” the clouds part and it’s there at last: the Jacksons’ glorious ascendance to full jheri-curldom, complete with a synth line that sounds like it was stolen straight out of Prince’s vault and even a freaking vocoder solo. It may have taken them a few years to get there, but once the Jacksons finally went jheri curl, they went hard.

MJ unleashes the jheri curl beast; © MJJ Productions

Jackson’s next solo album, 1982’s Thriller, stands as his crowning achievement in jheri curl music (hell, jheri curl everything: just look at that luscious thing on the cover, it’s beautiful). Opening track “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” found M.J. mastering the new robotic funk like he’d been doing it his whole career. “Billie Jean,” the album’s first big hit single, is a post-disco groove as spooky as it is funky. And “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” isn’t just Michael’s best jheri curl song, it may be the ultimate jheri curl song, period: from the stop-start guitar and synth pattern to the robot-voiced breakdown and the euphoric, vocoder-heavy finale. Close your eyes while you’re listening to it, and if you don’t picture a luscious wet jheri curl in your mind’s eye, then you’re a goddamn liar.

Looking the part on the 1984 Victory Tour; photo stolen from Michael Jackson Tribute

By the time of the Jacksons’ next (and, until 1989’s 2300 Jackson Street, last) group album, the group had already moved on from pure jheri curl to decadent, Miami Vice-style schlock-R&B/rock (see also: the System’s “The Pleasure Seekers“). The album was also decidedly less “group”-oriented than the previous records, reflecting the more pronounced solo ambitions of Michael and (to much less successful effect) the rest of the brothers. Of Michael’s contributions, “State of Shock” is the most jheri-curl–plus it allows the rare spectacle of seeing Michael Jackson out-rock no less a personage than Mick Jagger.

Michael’s actual jheri curl gets ever more baroque in 1987, even as the jheri curl begins to leave his music; photo by Greg Goreman, stolen from Fanpop

Like Prince, M.J. moved on from jheri curl music in the mid-’80s. Bad, his long-awaited 1987 follow-up to Thriller, was a structurally similar (and inferior) sequel, but sonically it drew from a much broader spectrum of musical styles, incorporating everything from house-inflected beats on the title track and “Smooth Criminal” to contemporary gospel on “Man in the Mirror.” There were a few jheri-curl tracks buried in the album’s deep cuts, however: the Stevie Wonder duet “Just Good Friends” and “Another Part of Me,” a holdover from his 1986 3D Disney short Captain EO.

Michael’s jheri curl, preserved for the ages in HIStory; © MJJ Productions

Bad was in many ways the last gasp of jheri curl in Jackson’s music; his next album, 1991’s Dangerous, found him in full New Jack Swing mode, as did the Jacksons’ 2300 Jackson Street. But an updated version of the sound would rear its head again as late as 1995, on Jackson’s fittingly backward-looking greatest hits/attempted creative rebirth HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I“2 Bad,” cowritten and produced by none other than Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, sounds like a post-hip-hop update of the Minneapolis Sound Jam and Lewis helped to perfect. It’s a fitting end to this retrospective of Jackson’s own place in jheri curlstory.

So there you have it: another 15 tracks added to the Spotify playlist below, and another jheri-curl titan duly commemorated. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s take this bittersweet anniversary as a chance to look back on the wonderful musical legacy Michael left us: a legacy that includes, and transcends, some of the greatest jheri curl music ever recorded.


2 responses to “Jheri Curl June Special: Michael Jackson”

  1. dunderbeck1980 Avatar

    Michael Jackson and Prince’s legacies are often very misunderstood. Both of them have equal importance to the 80’s. But of different natures. MJ’s legacy comes from him having been around for a decade by the time of ‘Thriller. So his significance to the time came from being a performer-especially in terms of developing the storytelling ability of the fairly new art form of music video. Prince on the other hand premiered at the end of the 70’s as an instrumental wunderkind. Several years later he was starting his first major bands and even had a whole style of music named for what he did: the Minneapolis Sound. So Prince was important to the 80’s as a musical figure-with his brilliant drum machine programming and high up on the neck rhythm guitar. What was most important for both of them was they were able to sneak a little rock ‘n roll in their music to catch the pop crowd in the 80’s. But for the most part what they bought to the decade was totally soulful,totally funky and totally of the black American aestetic.

    1. Zach Avatar

      I have to admit, I’m a bit of a pro-Prince partisan–I was too young to REALLY remember Michael Jackson’s impact, and going back to most of his records now they just sound dated to me (minus a lot of the singles, obviously). But his importance to popular music is undeniable, and Off the Wall especially is an incredible post-disco album.

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